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Iraq: Sunnis Weigh In On Draft Constitution

Vice President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir, a Sunni leader (file photo) Iraq's Sunni Arab leaders have expressed varying levels of opposition to the draft constitution since it was announced on 28 August. As with other turning points in Iraq's post-Hussein political development, it is clear now that Sunnis do not have a united stance on the draft. However, a number of Sunni groups have given the draft a lukewarm reception, indicating that they could be swayed to support the draft in the national referendum set for 15 October.

Media reports indicate that at least one Sunni group remains engaged in negotiations with government officials over the draft, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. (See "Iraqi Draft Constitution Finalized, Despite Some Sunni Objections".) U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters at a 30 August press briefing that he does not believe a "final, final, draft" has been presented, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported.

Iraqi Islamic Party Secretary-General Tariq al-Hashimi told reporters at a 29 August press briefing in Baghdad that Sunni leaders felt slighted by the drafting committee when the draft was released on 28 August despite a lack of consensus on its content.

The Principle Of Consensus

Al-Hashimi said his party took an advisory role in the negotiations on the draft only after Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders vowed the draft would be written under the "principle of agreement," RFI reported. "Regretfully, this draft constitution does not reflect our aspirations, concerns of Iraqi, nor fulfills our legitimate and national principles as much as we had hoped it would," he said.

"Not the entire draft is bad," al-Hashimi conceded. "It includes good and bad elements.... The Islamic Party contests this draft constitution, but does not reject it part and parcel."

Sunni and Shi'ite leaders confirmed that behind-the-scenes negotiations are continuing with al-Hashimi, who is trying to "make amendments" to the articles his group opposes, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on 30 August.

Likewise, Sunni tribal leader and Vice President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir told reporters at a 29 August press briefing that although he was not satisfied by some aspects of the draft, he might encourage Sunni Arabs to vote for it in the hopes that Sunnis could better influence contentious issues -- such as federalism -- once the draft is approved and National Assembly elections are held in December, bringing more Sunni Arabs into parliament.

Al-Yawir contended that Sunni Arabs might not be able to vote down the referendum in three governorates in October. "I think it will be extremely hard to defeat. That's why I think we have to aim at the next elections.... Whoever feels grievance now has to work harder in order to be in the next [government]," he said, reported on 30 August.
"If a single point in the constitution is unacceptable, voters would reject the constitution altogether." -- National Dialogue Council head Salih al-Mutlaq

Meanwhile, Faysal Jarullah al-Shammari, deputy head of the Sunni Al-Waqf Council in the Dhi Qar Governorate, told RFI on 30 August: “We can say in general that the positive spirit dominating the constitutional drafting committee, where discussions have been held and opinions shared openly and without fanaticism for a certain ideology or orientation, is a step in the right direction. As far as the draft in general is concerned, it includes some unclear points that offer several likely eventualities. These could lead Iraq, God forbid, to disintegration and weakness. All of us, without any exception, want a strong and united Iraq. All of us: Sunnis and Shi'a, Kurds and Arabs, and other members of the Iraqi people."

Intimidation Campaign?

Al-Shammari's take on the constitution is somewhat more restrained than Al-Waqf Council Chairman Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarra'i, who told reporters at a 29 August press briefing that unnamed groups were attempting to intimidate Sunnis in an effort at keeping them away from the ballot box during the referendum, RFI reported on the same day.

Al-Samarra'i pointed to the discovery of the bodies of 36 Sunni Arabs in Wasit this week, saying: "These incidents and crimes are only aimed at stopping us before the elections. We are resolute by the will of God and decided by the power of God to enter the elections with full power. These acts of mob will not divert us from the participation in this process."

Al-Samarra'i also spoke about allegations he made last week against the Interior Ministry in which he claimed security forces working under the ministry had arrested Sunnis in Al-Mada'in and Salman Pak after imams encouraged worshippers to register to vote. "The arrests in Al-Mada’in are the strongest evidence that the arrests were deliberate," he said. "I can see that these killings happen at the same time when the constitution draft is presented and when people approach to registering in the lists of voters."

Other Sunni leaders are taking a more hard-line approach to the draft, including Salih al-Mutlaq, head of the National Dialogue Council and a member of the drafting committee. According to Al-Sharqiyah television, al-Mutlaq told reporters at a 28 August press briefing in Baghdad that the draft constitution "must either be accepted or rejected as a whole. If a single point in the constitution is unacceptable, voters would reject the constitution altogether."

Contesting The Draft's Approval

Al-Mutlaq told Al-Jazeera television in a 29 August interview that the council is weighing its options, and is considering contesting the legitimacy of the draft constitution through lawsuits in Iraqi and international courts.

Al-Mutlaq contended that the National Assembly should be considered dissolved. "The principle according to which the constitution is approved is not the vote but the principle of accord," he said. "Since [Sunnis] did not agree on this constitution, this constitution should not have been passed."

He contended that several other groups stand opposed to the constitution, including the followers of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr; the Democratic Trend (which comprises about a dozen political parties and groups); and a bloc of Arab tribes in the National Assembly.

Al-Mutlaq has said he will work with other opposition groups to organize a national conference on the constitution in the coming days.

The Muslim Scholars Association appears to have not officially weighed in on the draft but is thought to have been a key organizer in the 29 August demonstrations in Tikrit against the draft. Protesters at the event carried posters of Saddam Hussein, along with Iraqi flags and banners claiming the constitution will divide Iraq. Supporters of Shi'ite clerics Muqtada al-Sadr and Jawad al-Khalisi reportedly also took part in the demonstration, AP reported on 30 August. Khalisi heads the Iraqi National Founding Conference, which consists of dozens of Shi'ite and Sunni groups and parties, including the Muslim Scholars Association and followers of al-Sadr.

Getting Out The 'No' Vote

So, do the Sunni oppositionists to the draft stand a chance in voting down the referendum? Despite Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir's contention that Sunni Arabs might only sway one governorate against the draft, Sunnis opposed to the document -- if united with the likes of Shi'ite cleric al-Sadr and other hard-liners -- might rally enough supporters in three governorates to vote down the draft, but it will be an uphill battle. They will need to set aside other differences and present a united stance, something they may not, in the end, be able to do. At this point -- despite the recent show of force through demonstrations and speeches -- they are far from mobilized.

In the end, the determining factor may be terrorism. Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi has already vowed to target polling centers on voting day and to kill all those supporting the political process.

Sunni leaders, including al-Mutlaq, have also contended that they are ill-prepared to run a "no" campaign, citing a lack of financial resources. And unlike Iraq's leading political parties, they lack their own television and radio stations needed to propagate their message.

Voter registration is also a factor. Sunni leaders this week said that citizens -- particularly in Al-Anbar -- could not register to vote because only some of the registration centers opened. The Independent Election Commission has responded by extending the registration period, which was due to end on 31 August, for an additional week.

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