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Iraq: People Vote For Constitution, But Remain Wary Of Future

Ballots in Baghdad (epa) Iraqis have given the go-ahead to the country's new constitution in a referendum the UN says was conducted to the highest standard. To defeat the new project, "no" voters," who were predominantly Sunni Arabs, had to take two-thirds of the vote in at least three provinces. But they only won in two, paving the way for parliamentary elections in December. The question now, though, is whether the passage of the constitution will contribute to healing the country's wounds or further inflame them. Many Sunni leaders have called the referendum a farce that will destroy the unity of the state and place the country's oil wealth in the hands of the Shi'a majority.

Prague, 26 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- By the standards of any referendum -- let alone one conducted in the intimidating conditions of Iraq -- this was an impressive performance.

According to the official figures, 63 percent of the electorate voted. Of them, 78 percent backed the new charter and 21 percent opposed it.

A senior United Nations official in Iraq, Carina Perelli, said the vote had been conducted in a thoroughly professional way. Little wonder, then, that U.S. President George W. Bush was quick to sing its praises.

"Today, the Iraqi election commission certified the passage of the constitution. Many more Sunnis participated in this vote than in January's historic elections and the level of violence was dramatically lower," Bush said. "With their courageous vote, the Iraqi people have once again proved their determination to build a democracy united against extremism and violence."

Sunni No

But while that may indeed be what most Iraqis want, these results highlight a flaw right at the heart of the attempt to provide a foundation for Iraqi democracy. They clearly indicate what all observers had anticipated -- that the great majority of Arab Sunnis voted against the constitution.

The danger is that the outcome will strengthen the Sunnis' sense of isolation and drive them into the arms of the resistance. Yahia Said, who is an expert on Iraq at the London School of Economics, has just returned from Baghdad.

"There are two dynamics here. On the one hand, they have fought against the constitution and lost, which will definitely create a sense of frustration, and create an opening for insurgents and terrorists to claim that the political process will not bring Sunnis any results, and that they will have to operate outside it to protect their interests," Said said. "On the other hand, Sunni voters now know what is their weight in the Iraqi political process -- which is about 21 percent -- and they may decide this will give them sufficient leverage going into the next elections."

There is hope of a sort also in the fact that things could have been worse. First of all, this time the Sunnis did vote, unlike in the January elections, which most of them boycotted.

And some of them appear to have voted in favor of the constitution.

Sunnis make up only 20 percent of the population, but could have thrown out the constitution if two-thirds of voters in just three provinces had voted "no."

In two, they secured an overwhelming majority, but in Nineveh, where they had hoped to do the same, they fell short. Mosul, the main town in Nineveh, is predominantly Sunni, but critically, it is the headquarters of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni organization, which backed the constitution.

New Federalism

The constitution provides for a federal state in which both Shi'as and Kurds will have considerable powers -- the Kurds in particular. They will keep their own army in northern Iraq, local Kurdish law will override federal law when there is a conflict, and any new oil developments in the region will come under Kurdish control.

It is the oil that has the Sunnis particularly worried. At the moment, it is centrally controlled and all Iraqis benefit equally from its revenues. But new oil fields are likely to lie outside the main Sunni areas, giving rise to the Sunni fear that they will be caught in a poverty trap while the rest of the country prospers.

What, then, can the Shi'as and Kurds -- the victors in the constitutional referendum -- do to allay those fears?

Said is not optimistic: "The only thing they could do is to reopen the constitution and say: 'Look, despite the efforts during the drafting of the constitution, we seem to have failed to convince the Sunni minority in Iraq to accept it, and we really can't live with a constitution that is rejected by the Sunni community and we are happy to reopen it and renegotiate.' That's not something I expect from the current Shi'a and Kurdish politicians."

Optimists are looking to the parliamentary elections on 15 December. Another big turnout, they hope, will confirm the readiness of Sunnis to participate in the political process. But if there is a certainty in Iraqi politics, it is that the Shi'as and Kurds will win again. Old fears and old prejudices could be set in stone.