- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 20, 2005

BAGHDAD — Masked gunmen killed three Sunni Arabs in front of horrified witnesses outside a mosque in Mosul yesterday, after grabbing them as they hung posters urging fellow Sunnis to vote in a referendum on the new constitution.

As the Monday deadline to finish the constitution approaches, Sunni Arabs and some Shi’ites rallied in Baghdad and elsewhere to protest calls for a federated state — a demand of the Kurds and the biggest Shi’ite party but a stumbling block to an agreement on the charter.

The three members of Iraq’s largest Sunni Arab political group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, were seized in a Mosul neighborhood where they were promoting voter registration for the Oct. 15 referendum on the new constitution, said party official Nouredine al-Hayali.

They were driven to another neighborhood, shoved against a wall near the Dhi al-Nourein mosque and shot dead while more masked gunmen blocked off a major street, witnesses said. The gunmen then fled in three cars, leaving the bodies behind.

It was the second armed attack in as many days against Sunni Arabs participating in the U.S.-backed political process.

On Thursday, masked gunmen burst into the Sunni grand mosque in Ramadi, 135 miles south of Mosul, as religious, political, and tribal leaders were discussing the constitutional process. The gunmen demanded that the meeting end and then opened fire, said Omar Seri, secretary of the governor of Anbar province.

Three members of the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars and a bodyguard were injured, Mr. Seri said.

Many Sunni Arabs are considering taking part in the constitutional referendum after having boycotted the Jan. 30 national election ballot — a move that left the once-dominant community with few seats in a parliament dominated by Shi’ites and Kurds.

In recent weeks, various Sunni groups have been urging fellow Sunnis to vote in the referendum and a general election planned for December. The voter-registration deadline is Sept. 1.

The United States thinks the key to defeating the Sunni-dominated insurgency is to encourage an inclusive political process that would encourage disaffected Sunni Arabs to lay down arms.

The entire process hinges on the success of the drafting committee in producing a constitution acceptable to all Iraqi communities by Monday’s deadline. If parliament approves the draft, it goes to voters for ratification in October.

However, negotiations have bogged down over such issues as federalism, distribution of Iraq’s oil wealth, the role of Islam and Kurdish demands for the right to secede. Talks continued yesterday in the heavily guarded green zone but with no indication of a breakthrough.

Last Monday, parliament voted unanimously to grant a one-week extension to finish the draft. Under the interim constitution, however, parliament must be dissolved if the draft is not completed by this deadline.

Federalism appears to be the most contentious issue, drawing opposition not only from Sunni Arabs but also from some factions in the majority Shi’ite community. Opponents fear it would lead to the breakup of the country.

About 1,000 people including Sunnis and Shi’ite followers of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr rallied in two Baghdad districts yesterday, waving Iraqi and Shi’ite flags and chanting “No to separation, yes to unity.” A similar rally including Sunnis and Shi’ites was staged in the religiously diverse city of Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.

“After all, we are one united people whether we are Sunnis or Shi’ites, Kurds or Arabs,” Hazim al-Aaraji, another al-Sadr aide, told worshippers in a Shi’ite mosque in Baghdad’s Kazimiyah district during Friday prayers.

At a Sunni mosque across town, Sheik Ali Khudr al-Zand warned his congregation not to accept any constitution “that would rip away the unity of the nation.”

Elsewhere, residents of Rawah, a Euphrates River town 175 miles northwest of Baghdad, reported gunfire last night between U.S. forces and insurgents. No other details were available.

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