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Iraq: Arab Sunni Leaders Split Over Referendum On Draft Constitution

Arab Sunni leaders are divided over how their community should vote in Iraq’s referendum on the draft constitution that takes place on 15 October. Many clerics are using mosques to urge people to take part in the poll but vote "No" on the charter. Yet at least one mostly Arab Sunni political party is urging supporters to vote "Yes."

Prague, 13 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The chances Iraq’s draft constitution will be approved in the 15 October national referendum were likely boosted yesterday, when one mostly Sunni Arab party endorsed the document.

The Iraqi Islamic Party had previously opposed the draft constitution as ignoring key Arab Sunni concerns, including fears the majority Shi’a might use some of its provisions to declare their own self-rule area.

But the party reversed its position yesterday in a deal approved by the Shi’ite-dominated National Assembly. The deal includes provisions for a review of the constitution after a new legislature is elected by the end of this year.

But if the Islamic Party’s last-minute U-turn boosts hopes the draft constitution will be approved, it also illustrates what observers say is the extreme difficulty of forecasting how the Sunni Arab community will actually vote in the referendum.

In the run-up to yesterday’s deal, Islamic Party leaders predicted they would be joined in endorsing the draft charter by two coalition partners.

“We are in coalition with the National Dialogue (party) and the Conference of the Iraqi People, and these three sides will be a coalition in the next election, so the main base of the Sunni will say ‘Yes’ to this constitution," Islamic Party spokesman Baha Aldin al-Naqshabandi told RFE/RL. "Maybe only the Muslim scholars will boycott this referendum, but the general base of the Sunni will vote and say ‘Yes’ to this constitution.”

However, when the deal was formally announced, both of the Islamic Party’s partners balked at accepting it. The spokesman of the Iraqi National Dialogue party, Salih al-Mutlak, said in a statement that "we ask people to go and vote 'No' to this constitution.” Similarly, a leader of the Iraqi People's Conference, Adnan al-Dulaymi, said he would continue to oppose the draft constitution.
Some analysts say that the breakdown of the Islamic Party’s coalition over the referendum raises worries that the party’s leadership may have taken a position out of step with that of many of its supporters.

Some analysts say that the breakdown of the Islamic Party’s coalition over the referendum raises worries that the party’s leadership may have taken a position out of step with that of many of its supporters.

Aziz Alkazaz, a regional expert formerly with the German Institute of Middle East Studies in Hamburg, said that the Islamic Party’s leadership in the past has shown itself willing to take large risks to participate in Iraq’s political process. But he said that has often resulted in frictions both between the party’s leaders and its members, and with its allied parties.

“This is the difference between these parties on the one side and the [Islamic Party] on the other side, that they are not so easily compromising with the political process. So, I think the difference between leadership and members within these two other parties are not that big as in the case of the [Islamic Party],” Alkazaz told RFE/RL.

Analysts say that means how much the Islamic Party’s endorsement has boosted the constitution’s chances of success will only be known when the votes are counted.

To be adopted, the draft constitution must be approved by voters across Iraq. It can be defeated if two-thirds of the voters in at least three of Iraq’s governorates vote "No.”

The threat of a rejection remains significant because groups opposed to the constitution are also using the last remaining hours to persuade voters to their cause.

As the Islamic Party sought to muster support for the document yesterday, the powerful Muslim Clerics Association used the occasion to again lash out against the charter. The association's Abd al-Salam al-Kubaisi said, "Anyone supporting this constitution is merely ruining his reputation." Al-Kubaisi also said that voters should either stay away from the polls on 15 October or vote against the constitution. The Muslim Clerics Association includes both Sunni and Shi’ite clerics.

"The Wall Street Journal" reported today that many clerics affiliated with the association are using mosques to urge people to reject the charter.

The effort is particularly strong in Arab Sunni areas where people boycotted Iraqi elections on 30 January over concerns that their once-dominant community would be eclipsed by Iraq’s Shi’ite majority. Arab Sunni areas of central Iraq are also where insurgents opposing the U.S. occupation are most active.

Alkazaz said that the Muslim Clerics Association is able to mobilize its supporters because it has remained consistent in its messages since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. “All their political decisions are according to their main line," he said. "They have never left that line. The main line is stressing that they would not compromise with anything without the basic condition that the Americans state a timetable for leaving Iraq. And they say always all steps which have been taken after the occupation are illegal.”

Preeminent Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani sought to weaken the Muslim Clerics Association’s message by appealing to all Iraqis yesterday to vote "Yes" in the referendum.

The 15 October vote is a key part of U.S. and Iraqi government plans to stabilize the country by completing its transition to a more democratic and popular system of government.

Approval of the draft constitution on 15 October would clear the way for Iraq to hold its first national elections for a constitutional government in December.

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