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Iraqi Referendum Draws Mixed Reaction in Region


As the ballots are counted from Iraq's constitutional referendum, many observers are hailing the vote as an important step toward democracy. But others, particularly in neighboring countries, believe the results are not likely to diminish the daily violence that has been the legacy of the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

While many Iraqis celebrated their second democratic exercise in less than a year, political analysts in neighboring countries wondered whether the constitutional referendum would ease the violence that is undermining peace and reconstruction in the country.

Preliminary results show that members of the Kurdish and Shiite Arab groups voted massively for the new charter, which grants them considerably autonomy under a federal system.

But the Arab Sunni group, which dominated politics under deposed President Saddam Hussein, opposed the new charter, fearing it would lead to the breakup of Iraq. The Sunnis are said to form the backbone of the insurgency, which has killed thousands of people since the war U.S.-led war to oust Saddam.

The head of Jordan's Jerusalem Center for Political Studies, Ureib Rantawi, says the referendum was an important step, but he worries that it will only fuel the insurgency.

"If it (the constitution) is passed, it will provide the extremists, the fundamentalist group, with a new pretext to continue their bloodbath in Iraq, and I think they will gain in support from a serious part of the Arab Sunnis," he says.

The Sunni Arabs mostly boycotted January's elections for the transitional assembly that drafted the new constitution. As a result, they have felt excluded from the political process. Many went to the polls Saturday hoping to defeat the proposed constitution and start the process over again.

But a former member of the Jordanian parliament, newspaper columnist Hamadah Faranah, says this is not likely to happen because a significant number of Sunnis boycotted the vote, again.

He says that, as a result, the Arab Sunnis are likely to continue to be captive of their differences and to remain as isolated and separated as they were following the previous elections.

Some western leaders have praised Saturday's referendum saying that, in time, it will bring democracy and restore stability to Iraq.

But other analysts say that the draft constitution was put together in a hurry, and decisions on some of its most controversial elements were deferred. As a result, they say that, regardless of the referendum results, the document will need considerably more work.

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