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Iraqis Head to Referendum with Mixed Emotions


Iraqis will go to the polls on October 15 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. However, many among Iraq's Sunni Arab minority strongly oppose the constitution, because they believe it undermines Iraq's future as a unitary state.

Copies of Iraq's draft constitution are being distributed and studied by Iraqis as they prepare to vote October 15 to approve or reject the document. Iraq's national assembly, which is dominated by Shi'ites and Kurds, approved the constitution in September after months of often divisive negotiations. The document sets out a structure of government that includes a parliament and lays out the basis for a legal system. It has a section protecting human rights and guarantees women representation in parliament.

It also includes provisions that are opposed by Iraq's once-dominant Arab Sunni minority. It provides for a federal system of government and also calls for the country's oil wealth to be shared among Iraq's provinces in proportion to their population.

Many Sunnis fear if the charter is passed it will lead to the division of Iraq, leaving Shi'ites in the south and Kurds in the north in control of the nation's oil revenues. For this reason, many Sunni politicians are encouraging their supporters to vote against the draft constitution.

However, Middle East expert James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation says there is another reason for Sunni opposition.

"I think part of their objections are really a smokescreen because they're concerned about their loss of power," said 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."

In the January election that led to the formation of the interim government, Shi'ites and Kurds turned out in large numbers to vote, while Sunnis largely boycotted the election. This time will probably be different. Sunnis have registered in large numbers to vote in the referendum despite the threat of violence and intimidation from insurgents.

Insurgent violence has been escalating in recent weeks. The terrorist network led by 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 referendum and provoke a civil war.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have warned that violence would probably increase as the date of the referendum approaches. This warning was made recently by the U.S. commander of coalition forces in Iraq, General George Casey, in testimony before Congress late last month.

"To be sure the next months will be difficult because our enemies also realize what's at stake," said Mr. Casey. "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. They are attacking the will of the Iraqi people, and they are attacking the will of the coalition publics. They are failing in Iraq."

Despite the violence, Shi'ite and Kurdish voters are expected to turn out in large numbers, and opinion surveys indicate they will overwhelmingly support the new constitution. However, the minority Sunnis could defeat the charter. A two-thirds "no" vote in any three provinces would be enough to overturn the draft constitution even if a majority of voters in the rest of the country cast ballots in favor of the document. While Sunni Arabs make up 20 percent of Iraq's population, they are concentrated in four out of Iraq's 18 provinces.

If the constitution is rejected, a new government would have to be formed and the process of writing a constitution would have to begin again.

But even if the charter is approved, Middle East expert Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies predicts further instability after a new government is elected and takes power.

"Whatever happens, both the campaign and the new government that will take over have to address the issue of federalism, have to address money, have to address national versus provincial versus local power which is different from provincialism and federalism," said Mr. Cordesman. "They have to address the role of religion in politics, the constitution forces the new government to do that. 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 is going to last another three months while a government takes over. And this is the reality whether people would like to spin this into a symbol of democracy or not."

While Heritage Foundation expert James Phillips is more optimistic, he also adds this qualifier.

"I would agree that approving the constitution is not a silver bullet any more than an election is a silver bullet," he said. "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."

The Bush administration also sees the passing of a constitution as a crucial step in creating a stable democracy in Iraq. Officials hope if the charter is approved it will help unite the country and undercut the insurgency.

Meanwhile, last minute negotiations took place over the weekend between Shi'ite and Kurdish officials and Sunni Arab leaders to make additions to the constitution that would satisfy the Sunni minority. However, reports from the meetings say the sides remain far apart over basic sections of the document, including the issue of federalism.

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