Thursday, October 13, 2005

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi National Assembly yesterday approved last-minute changes to the draft constitution in an attempt to attract Sunni support before Saturday’s nationwide referendum on the charter.

The changes, endorsed by the president, prime minister and U.S. officials who had pushed for them, addressed Sunni concerns about the unity of Iraq and the persecution of former supporters of Saddam Hussein.

But it was not clear whether the amendments came in time to influence rank-and-file Sunni Muslim voters, who until now have been urged by party leaders and clerics to vote against the constitution.

In contrast, Iraq’s most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Hussaini al-Sistani, has urged Iraqis to vote “yes” on the referendum, one of his aides said yesterday.

“Sayyed Sistani has called on Iraqis to vote ‘yes,’” the aide said. Ayatollah al-Sistani’s guidance has great influence over the 60 percent of Iraqis who are Shi’ite Muslims.

Meanwhile, suicide bombers, including al Qaeda terrorists, continued their attacks yesterday, killing 30 Iraqi army recruits in a blast and bombing a northern oil pipeline, further disrupting the fragile economy.

“It’s not a battlefield on the road; it is worse, because you don’t know where the enemy is,” said a high-ranking police official in charge of a heavily Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad.

“We are trying our very best and hitting them, but there is someone supporting these people, and they are very strong,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of death threats against him and his family.

Iraq’s police and military, as well as U.S. forces patrolling the streets, go on high alert today in preparation for the Saturday vote.

The official said security forces had erected concrete barriers around all polling stations to frustrate car bombers but that bombers wearing explosives-laden vests remained a concern. “It’s very hard to fight this weapon,” he said.

Baghdad, once a green and orderly city, has become a jumbled mass of Jersey walls and razor wire, with soldiers patrolling on foot while police in black ski masks speed by in pickup trucks mounted with machine guns.

Police checkpoints and fake checkpoints run by terrorists mushroom overnight. City residents have closed off their neighborhoods with scavenged razor wire and rocks.

“What’s it like on the street? Misery, chaos and confusion,” said 43-year-old Lebanese-American Boulos Karam, a veteran of Lebanon’s long civil war who drives around Baghdad on a daily basis.

National Assembly members sped back to Baghdad yesterday after party leaders — encouraged by the U.S. Embassy — managed to broker a package of amendments to the draft constitution.

The changes would declare that the constitution is “a guarantee for the unity of Iraq,” and ensure that Arabic remains an official language in the Kurdish north and that no one can be prosecuted simply for having been a member of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party. Saddam was ousted by U.S.-led forces in 2003.

A committee to be formed after a new parliament is elected in December would be empowered to recommend further amendments, which could be approved by a simple majority in parliament and in a second referendum.

At least one recent poll showed that the constitution was headed for approval even in Sunni areas, despite a strong “vote no” campaign from Sunni leaders who fear the charter will fracture the country into a Kurdish north, a Shi’ite south and a Sunni center.

Some Sunni leaders welcomed the changes. But a Baghdad-based engineer who wished to be known only as Thaer said yesterday that Sunni clerics “gave us an Islamic fatwa in all the mosques to say no to the constitution.”

The inability of the Shi’ite-led government to quell the violence or improve basic services — combined with a sharp increase in sectarian killings — has left Baghdad’s residents bitter and divided.

Despite the large military presence in the streets, there was none of the euphoria that accompanied Iraq’s first national elections in January.

“Why should I risk my life?” said one Shi’ite man in his 40s. Several women, including Christians, said they would stay at home on Saturday to avoid the expected violence.

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