Sunni Opposition to Iraqi Draft Constitution Intensifies

By ROBERT F. WORTH

New York Times

August 30, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Aug. 29 - More leaders of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority spoke out Monday against the nation's draft constitution, and thousands of people took to the streets to denounce the document in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown.

Some Sunni leaders said they were already preparing a campaign to defeat the constitution, which was presented to the National Assembly on Sunday over their objections, when it goes before voters in a referendum in October. But some added that they did not expect to succeed in that effort, and that they were inclined to focus their energies instead on urging Sunnis to vote in the December parliamentary elections.

"There is too much tension, too much bitterness, especially among the Sunnis, and I think many people will push for a no vote" in the referendum, said Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar, a vice president and a Sunni leader from Mosul, who spoke to reporters about the constitutional struggle for the first time in months.

But for all their anger, the Sunnis are less unified and organized than the Kurds and Shiites who approved the constitution, Sheik Yawar said, and are unlikely to defeat it. For the constitution to fail, two-thirds of the voters in at least three provinces must vote against it, but Sheik Yawar said he believed that Sunnis could muster a two-thirds vote only in Anbar, a volatile province west of Baghdad.

For that reason, Sheik Yawar said, he thought the wisest course for the Sunnis, who suffered politically after they largely boycotted the last round of elections in January, would be to focus on getting a bigger turnout at the polls in December.

"My heart says no," Sheik Yawar said of his feelings about how to vote in the constitutional referendum. "My mind says yes, because we have to move along."

Some other Sunni leaders were still too angry to begin talking about the December elections.

Saleh Mutlak, a member of the panel that drafted the constitution, said its members had gathered Monday to discuss having the National Assembly declared illegitimate, because the repeated extensions of the deadline for finishing the constitution violated transitional law.

Other prominent Sunnis added their voices to calls for a defeat of the constitution in October.

"We will educate the citizens - Sunni, Shiite, Arab and Kurd - to reject this constitution when the process of voting starts," said Adnan Muhammad Salman al-Dulaimi, the spokesman of the General Conference of Ahal al-Sunna, a Sunni alliance.

Mr. Dulaimi cited the two issues that have ignited the most anger: a provision that could lead to a division of Iraq into largely autonomous regions, and the document's failure to assert that Iraq is part of the Arab world. But he said defeating the document would be far from easy.

"We know it will be difficult for Iraqis to reach the voting centers in Sunni areas," where guerrilla violence has been worst, he said.

In Anbar, where violence has been common, voter registration for the referendum will be extended for an additional week, until Sept. 7, the election commission announced Monday. The extension was made "for logistical and security reasons," the commission said.

Although Shiites and Kurds are likely to vote overwhelmingly for the constitution, one wild card has been Moktada al-Sadr, a rebellious Shiite cleric who has a large following and led two uprisings against American forces last year.

Mr. Sadr has led demonstrations against the constitution's provision to create autonomous regions in Iraq, and it is not clear whether he will mobilize his followers in Baghdad's vast Shiite district, Sadr City, during the referendum.

Mr. Mutlak said Sunnis who oppose the document expected to meet with Mr. Sadr, though no date has been set.

But some Sunni leaders said they were not sure they could rely on Mr. Sadr, a notoriously mercurial figure who differs sharply with the Sunni panel members on other issues. Mr. Sadr has always been hostile to the Baath Party of Mr. Hussein, for instance, while many Sunnis angrily opposed provisions in the constitution banning remnants of the party.

Mr. Sadr may also be subject to pressure from senior Shiite religious figures who favor the constitution. On Monday evening, he met in Najaf for half an hour with a son of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most powerful cleric.

Some Sunni leaders acknowledge that defeating the constitution might be futile, because the transitional law would require elections for a new parliament that would be charged with writing another constitution. That constitution would, in all likelihood, be similar to the one that was presented Sunday.

But for some Iraqis, the debate is as much about identity as politics. By threatening to divide the country and publicly denying that it is a part of the Arab world, some Sunnis say, the constitution is dissolving the thin cultural glue that holds Iraq together.

"This is our crisis: Iraqi national identity is diminishing more and more," Sheik Yawar said. "This constitution is not helping."

As the political debate dragged on, violence continued.

A United States Army helicopter made a forced landing on Monday night under hostile fire in northern Iraq, and one soldier was killed and another wounded, The Associated Press reported, quoting an American military statement.

The incident occurred in Tal Afar, an insurgent-ridden city 260 miles northwest of Baghdad. No further details were released.

Qais Mizher and Khaled al-Ansary contributed reporting from Baghdad for this article, and an Iraqi employee of The New York Times from Najaf.