- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Iraq’s draft constitution faces a tricky but not impassable road to ratification in an Oct. 15 referendum that is seen as critical to the country’s political future and to the U.S. military mission.

Thousands of minority Sunni Arabs, who are considered most hostile to the new constitution, marched yesterday in Tikrit, the hometown of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, urging a rejection of the constitution completed by the National Assembly on Sunday.

But a spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party, a leading moderate Sunni political grouping, told reporters in Baghdad that the party might back the constitution if it is modified before the vote.

“We have not yet signed the constitution, and we still have the time starting from now until the referendum comes,” said party Secretary-General Tareq al-Hashemi. “We might say yes to the constitution if the disputed points are resolved.”

With Iraq’s majority Shi’ite Arabs and ethnic Kurds in the north both backing the text, the draft constitution is expected to easily obtain the needed nationwide majority vote to pass in mid-October. But ratification would fail if two-thirds of voters in at least three of the country’s 18 provinces vote “no.”

Originally put in place to protect Kurdish interests, the three-province hurdle has given unexpected leverage to the Sunnis, who have led the resistance to the U.S.-backed government and whose representatives refused to endorse the final constitution text.

Karol Soltan, a University of Maryland constitutional expert who advised Kurdish negotiators during the recent Baghdad talks, said Sunni Arabs constitute two-thirds of the population in only two provinces — Anbar and Sulaymaniyah — and form a simple majority in two others.

“If the vote is just based on crude politics and each group votes as a bloc, then the constitution passes,” he said.

Iraq’s Sunnis, who dominated the government under Saddam, say they fear the constitution’s decentralized federal structure will leave them at the mercy of the majority Shi’ites and cut them off from lucrative oil reserves in the Kurdish-dominated north and the Shi’ite-dominated south.

But Mr. Soltan said a bigger obstacle to passage could be emerging splits within the Shi’ite community, where radical cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr has echoed Sunni complaints that the constitution could lead to the breakup of the country.

There are no reliable opinion polls on the draft constitution, but leading Sunni organizations already are urging followers to vote — a sharp contrast to the heavy Sunni boycott of the Jan. 31 parliamentary election.

A survey last month by the Washington-based International Republican Institute found that 85 percent of Iraqis polled said they were likely to vote in October.

The Bush administration, which was deeply involved in the final negotiations in hopes of securing Sunni backing for the constitution, said yesterday that it was too early to handicap the Oct. 15 vote.

“We’ll see,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. “We are only at the very beginning of the ability of all the Iraqi people, including the Sunni population, to take a look at the constitution, read it for themselves and decide how they’re going to vote.”

U.S. officials are clearly hoping that a successful ratification vote and a subsequent parliamentary election on Dec. 15 will undercut Sunni Arab support for the deadly insurgency.

Even if the constitution is rejected, the December vote for a permanent National Assembly will be held, and the new parliament will have until the end of 2006 to produce a new draft constitution.

Mr. Soltan said large parts of the draft constitution read more like a peace treaty, designating borders and outlining how Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic militias will function.

He said the political process would continue if the constitution is rejected, but said violence could escalate as factions jockeyed for advantage before a new deal could be struck.

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