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Iraqi charter gains wide backing

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BAGHDAD -- Recent polling shows widespread support for a new Iraqi constitution to be voted on Oct. 15, even in strongholds of Sunni Arab groups that are fighting to derail the charter.

Mehdi Hafedh, director of the Iraqi Center for Development and International Dialogue, said his latest survey showed that Iraqis are exhausted by the continuing violence and that most are hoping the new constitution will be a first step toward the restoration of order.

"The Iraqi people want to finalize the political process as soon as possible. ... They want to establish a normal government and institutions," Mr. Hafedh said yesterday, adding: "Iraqis want this situation to end. It is untenable."

The poll of 3,625 Iraqis, conducted Sept. 14 to 19, showed 79 percent in favor of the draft constitution and 8 percent opposed. The remainder did not respond.

A high percentage of respondents said they intended to vote and that the level of violence likely would be reduced after the referendum.

Iraq's parliament, which is controlled by Shi'ites and Kurds, reinterpreted the rules for the balloting during the weekend in what was seen as a bid to ensure that the constitution could not be blocked by the Sunni minority.

A provision originally intended to give a veto to the Kurds says the referendum can be defeated by a two-thirds "no" vote in any three provinces. Sunnis constitute a majority in four provinces.

The National Assembly ruled Sunday that it would require two-thirds of registered voters in those provinces to defeat the referendum, as opposed to two-thirds of votes cast. But it also ruled that a simple majority of votes cast overall was sufficient for approval of the constitution.

Jose Aranaz, a legal adviser to the U.N. electoral team in Iraq, said yesterday that the United Nations had expressed objections to the assembly "and to the leadership of the government and told them that the decision that was taken was not acceptable and would not meet international standards."

"Hopefully, by [today], the situation will be clarified," he said.

"They cannot have a double interpretation in the same sentence," Mr. Aranaz added. "The interpretation, which we asked for 2 1/2 months ago, came late, and it came wrong."

The assembly's ruling threatened to further alienate Sunnis, many of whom are opposed to the constitution and are hoping to defeat it in the referendum.

But the polling by the Iraqi Center for Development and International Dialogue -- a nonprofit organization funded partially by the United Nations -- indicated that the referendum was headed for passage regardless of the Sunday parliamentary action.

"The part that surprised me was the percentage of supporters for the referendum. I didn't expect that," said Mr. Hafedh, who was minister of planning under interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

Although support for the constitution was particularly high in the northern Kurdish areas and southern regions dominated by Shi'ites, Mr. Hafedh said it topped 50 percent even in central provinces known as the heartland of Sunni unrest -- a sign, he said, that the Sunni-Shi'ite split is not as wide as many fear.

"This is exaggerated by political elites who are seeking power and by Western media and analysts," Mr. Hafedh said. "If you go down to the streets, you can't tell who is Sunni and who is Shi'ite. We are all mixed."

He said most opponents of the constitution cited reasons ranging from Iraq's lack of sovereignty to poor security, while far fewer cited explicit political concerns over the document.

Mr. Hafedh conceded that it sometimes was difficult to gauge the precise political views of Iraq's voters and that many poll respondents might have been influenced by religious leaders who have called for supporting the constitution.

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