Iraqis will go to the polls on October 15th to vote whether to approve a draft constitution that will pave the way for the election of a new government in December. The Bush administration hopes if the charter is approved it will help unite Iraq and undercut the insurgency - yet many among Iraq's Sunni Arab minority strongly oppose certain provisions in the document. VOA's Bill Rodgers reports on the challenges posed by the referendum.
Copies of Iraq's draft constitution are being distributed and studied by Iraqis as they prepare to vote October 15th to approve or reject the document. Passed by parliament after months of divisive negotiations, the draft constitution includes provisions such as federalism that are opposed by Iraq's once-dominant Arab Sunni minority.
Many Sunnis fear if the charter is passed it will divide Iraq, leaving Shi'ites in the south and Kurds in the north in control of the nation's oil revenues.
James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation believes there's another reason for Sunni opposition.
"I think part of their objections are really a smokescreen because they're concerned about their loss of power,” says Mr. Phillips. “Historically, they ran Iraq and now if you really look at where the insurgency area is, it is the Sunni areas which are most in danger of leaving in the short-run not the Kurdish or Shi'ite areas because they strongly support the present government."
Insurgent violence is on the rise as the referendum approaches. Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Sunni Arab insurgents have been setting off bombs and carrying out other attacks -- mainly against Shi'ite civilians -- in an effort to derail the vote and provoke a civil war.
The U.S. commander of coalition forces in Iraq, General George Casey, warned Congress recently there will be increased violence.
"To be sure the next months will be difficult because our enemies also realize what's at stake. They're already challenging the referendum process with increased terror attacks to create the impression that attempts at progress are futile and that Iraq can never become a modern democratic society," said the general.
Aside from the violence, if the Sunnis vote overwhelmingly to reject the constitution it could be defeated. A two-thirds "no" vote in any three provinces would be enough to overturn the proposed charter, and Sunni Arabs have a chance of doing so in four of Iraq's 18 provinces.
Even if the charter is approved, Middle East expert Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington predicts further instability.
"If it does pass there is then two months in which everyone has to campaign for a new government which will be the permanent government, and the way the constitution is structured is vague,” Mr Cordesman told us. “Whatever happens, both the campaign and the new government that will take over have to address the issue of federalism, have to address money.... So what we're talking about is a period, which -- to put it mildly, is already troubled -- which will last through mid-December when the election occurs and then almost certainly another three months while a government takes over. And this is the reality whether people would like to spin this into being sort of a symbol of democracy or not."
However, for President Bush the referendum is just one more sign of progress in Iraq.
Mr. Bush said at the White House, "We're making progress when it comes to training Iraqis to take the fight to the enemy and we're bringing the enemy to justice, we're on the offense. On the other hand, democracy is moving forward in a part of the world that is so desperate for democracy and so desperate for freedom."
Middle East expert James Phillips is also hopeful, but adds this qualifier:
"I would agree that approving the constitution is not a silver bullet any more than an election is a silver bullet. What it signifies really is the beginning of a long process that could ultimately undermine the insurgency and build a popular government. But there are many pitfalls along the way and just the passing of a constitution in and of itself will not guarantee the success of democracy, but I think it's a pre-requisite for building such a democracy."
Millions of Iraqis are registered to vote in the October 15th referendum, and election officials are predicting a high turnout.