Thousands of Shi'ite Muslims held a rally in the southern Iraqi city of Basra Friday to show support for the country's draft constitution. The proposed charter is opposed by many Iraqi Sunni Arabs, and several hundred of them in the western town of Ramadi showed their displeasure Friday with a noisy demonstration of their own.
An estimated 5,000 Iraqi Shi'ites marched through the streets of Basra chanting, "yes to the constitution."
It was the largest such gathering in Iraq since the country's Shi'ite and Kurdish-dominated National Assembly adopted the charter five days ago. The event is believed to have been organized by the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa Party.
The two political entities have ties to neighboring Iran, and form the largest majority Shi'ite grouping in Iraq. They dominate the country's interim government, and their representatives played a key role in shaping the draft constitution.
But the document, which advocates a federalist arrangement for the Kurdish oil-rich north and the predominantly Shi'ite oil-rich south, is bitterly opposed by the country's minority Sunni Arabs.
The Sunnis view federalism in the constitution as a blueprint for dividing Iraq into sectarian-based, semi-autonomous regions, leaving the Sunni Arabs in the middle of the country unable to share in the country's oil wealth.
Sunni Arabs have also rejected phrases in the constitution referring to Iraq as an Islamic, but not Arab, country. The omission of the word Arab was a concession to the non-Arab Kurds. But Sunnis say it threatens the nation's ties to other Arab countries in the region.
On Friday, several hundred people in the Sunni stronghold of Ramadi, in western Anbar province, staged their own demonstration against the proposed charter. The protesters urged ordinary Sunnis and Shi'ites to unite against what they perceive as a ploy by the Shi'ite politicians in government to bring Iraqis under the influence of Shi'ite Iran.
A prominent Sunni Iraqi-American activist, Hatem Mukhlis, says he believes, if the draft constitution is put before a national referendum on October 15 without any changes, it has the potential to worsen the chaos and violence in Iraq.
"A bad constitution is much worse than no constitution," he said. "The draft constitution has been disastrous, unfortunately, because there are so many points there that are not going to be acceptable to many Iraqis, let alone in Sunni areas. What we need to do is to have a draft constitution modified enough, so that everybody could accept it for this period of time, so that we can get over this period. We can get to the elections, without going through this battle of trying to knock it out."
If at least three out of Iraq's 18 provinces reject the charter in the referendum, new elections will have to be held to choose another transitional assembly, which would then have to start writing another constitution from scratch.
If Iraqis approve the draft constitution on October 15, that will pave the way for national elections on December 15 to choose a permanent government.
Some angry Sunni leaders have vowed to launch a no-vote campaign in four Sunni-dominated provinces, in an attempt to defeat the charter in the referendum. But last week, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, suggested that further changes may be made to the document in order to win Sunni Arab approval.