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Iraqis Ready to Vote on Constitution

A recent survey conducted by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute shows that more than 80 percent of Iraqis plan to vote in the October 15 referendum on the country's draft constitution. But with two weeks left, Iraqis themselves are still deeply divided on how they will vote.

The International Republican Institute carried out the survey earlier this month in 17 of Iraq's 18 provinces. Of the nearly 2,800 people who participated in the poll, 85 percent said that they are planning to vote in the national referendum in October.

The poll also said that 49 percent of the respondents believe that the draft constitution represents the will of the Iraqi people, compared to 17 percent who feel it represents the will of only certain ethnic or religious groups. Thirteen percent said the charter did not represent the will of the people at all.

The harshest critics of the draft constitution have been Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, who say the document blatantly discriminates against them in favor of the country's majority Shi'ites and semi-autonomous Kurds. Sunnis, who make up more than 20 percent of the country's population, boycotted Iraq's elections in January and had little voice in the interim National Assembly and in the committee which drafted the constitution.

A spokesman for a Sunni political umbrella organization, Saleh Mutlak, says, unlike in January elections, most Sunnis will go to the polls this time. But he says they will vote to defeat the constitution, not to endorse it. Sunni Arabs vehemently oppose a provision in the charter, which gives Shi'ite Muslims the right to form a semi-autonomous state in the south. Sunnis fear the move will deprive them of the area's oil wealth and lead to the breakup of the country.

"We will not accept a constitution, which divides Iraq because we think this is a step forward for a civil war in Iraq," said Mr. Mutlak.

The United States has long hoped for a draft constitution that could draw Sunnis into Iraq's political process and help defuse the country's Sunni-led insurgency. But a no vote from Sunni Arabs, who form the majority in four of Iraq's 18 provinces, could spark a major political crisis.

If two-thirds of voters in three provinces can muster enough no votes, the document will be nullified. New elections will have to be held and a new constitution will have to be written from scratch.

A Shi'ite member of the Iraqi National Assembly, Honain Kadoo, says he believes the lack of Sunni support for the constitution will only strengthen the insurgency and further destabilize the country.

"I am not really optimistic [about the constitution] without trying to bring Sunni Arabs into the political process," he said. "Without them, we will not experience any stability in Iraq. So, the future of Iraq is going to be gloomy. I think we should make some amendments in the constitution. We should re-do it, even if it means delaying the 15th [referendum]. I mean, the future of Iraq, the stability of Iraq, the unity of Iraq is more important than the constitution."

With little enthusiasm among Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders to delay the vote, some U.S. and Iraqi officials now say the best hope is that the vast majority of the country's 60 percent Shi'ite Muslims will endorse the charter and allow the country to go forward, with Sunni participation, in holding elections for a permanent government in December.

Last Thursday, it was widely reported here that the most revered and powerful Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, gave his support for the draft constitution and was urging his followers to vote yes on the constitution.

In January, the ayatollah's call for Iraqi Shi'ites to vote in elections prompted millions to defy insurgent threats and go to the polls.

But on Thursday, Mr. Sistani son, Mohammed Ali al-Sistani, denied that his father had issued an edict urging a yes vote on the constitution. In a statement sent to the Iraqi media, Mr. Sistani's son said that the reclusive cleric had no intention of interfering in the political process by telling Shi'ites how to vote.