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Sunnis Threaten Referendum Boycott if Rules Not Changed

In a blow to U.S. hopes of getting Sunni Arabs on board Iraq's political process to quell the country's insurgency, moderate Sunni leaders say their community may boycott the referendum on the country's draft constitution in 11 days. The grim assessment follows a move on Sunday by the Shi'te and Kurdish-dominated National Assembly to make it harder for Sunni Arabs to defeat the charter.

Sunni Arab officials and independent Iraqi lawmakers expressed outrage over what they say was an illegal move by Shi'ite Muslim and Kurds to ensure the passage of the constitution.

A spokesman for a leading Sunni political umbrella organization in Baghdad, Saleh Mutlak, says Sunni leaders are considering a boycott of the constitutional referendum on October 15, because they believe their votes will have little impact on the outcome.

Another leading moderate Sunni politician, Sadoun al-Zubaidi, lashed out at Shi'ite and Kurdish politicians, calling them enemies of democracy.

"The enemies of democracy are afraid their plans might not be realized if they do not go about it in this crooked way, circumventing the main principles enshrined in their own Transitional Administrative Law, and I am so sad today to see that happen," he said. "It is a sad day for democracy in Iraq. It is a sad day for the constitution of Iraq. It is also a reflection on how some people in the name of democracy are afraid of the decisions that the people might make."

Assyrian Christian lawmaker, Yonadin Kanna, says his community also considers the move by Shi'ite and Kurdish legislators to be dangerously divisive.

"It is very unfair," said Mr. Kanna. "The people of Iraq are free. We have to respect their vote, yes or no. And we have to have one standard in Iraq, not double standards."

Sunday, Shi'ites and Kurds who control more than three-quarters of the seats in the 275 member National Assembly, re-interpreted the existing interim constitution and created two thresholds for passing and defeating the referendum.

According to the new rules, a simple majority of those turning out to vote is needed to approve the draft constitution, but it will require two-thirds of those registered to vote in at least three provinces to reject it.

The change inserts "registered to vote" rather than actual voters, making it more difficult to defeat the charter.

The United Nations expressed concern to the Iraqi government that the electoral changes do not meet international standards. U.N. officials say they have been meeting with Iraqi authorities in an effort to have the change reversed.

Sunni Arabs, who form a majority in at least three Iraqi provinces, are firmly opposed to the draft constitution that they say gives too much power to Shi'ites and Kurds. Prior to Sunday's parliamentary decision, an overwhelming majority of Sunnis said that they would defy insurgent threats and go to the polls on October 15 to vote down the charter.

U.S. officials have said they hope the charter wins approval and that enough Sunnis participate in the voting process to give the constitution legitimacy. A "yes" vote for the constitution would pave the way for elections in December for a permanent Iraqi government.

The threat of a boycott raises the prospects that Sunni Arabs, who form the core of the country's insurgency, will feel further alienated from Iraqi society and continue to fuel the insurgency.