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Disagreement Lingers As Iraqi Constitution Deadline Nears

With just three days left before a crucial deadline to submit a draft constitution for Iraq, Sunni Arabs on Friday denounced Shi'ite calls for a Shi'ite federal region to be enshrined in the new constitution. Ordinary Iraqis say the political wrangling over the constitution is distracting attention from issues they say are far more important to their daily lives.

During Friday prayers, across Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, Sunni mosques blared the same basic message - register to vote so that Sunnis can veto the constitution if it contains measures that are not in the Sunni Arabs' interest.

Iraqi Sunnis were responding to a call on Thursday by leading conservative Shi'ite politician, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, for autonomy in Shi'ite areas of south and central Iraq.

Mr. Hakim did not state anything new. Shi'ite leaders have previously called for such an arrangement. But Sunnis are alarmed because it is the first time that the conservative religious leader, who heads the Shi'ite coalition that took power in Iraq in January, has voiced explicit public support of federalism.

Mr. Hakim's comments came after meetings in the holy city of Najaf with Shi'ite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose followers fought pitched battles with U.S. troops last year.

Enshrining federalism in the constitution is favored by Iraqi Kurds and Shi'ites, but opposed by Sunni Arabs, who argue that it will lead to the breakup of the country. Privately, Sunnis fear that the permanent creation of autonomous zones will prevent Sunni Arabs from taking an equal share of Iraq's oil reserves, which are predominantly located in the country's Kurdish north and Shi'ite-dominated south.

Sunni opposition to federalism has the potential to defeat the new constitution. Interim rules say the charter can be rejected by a two-thirds majority in any three provinces. Sunni Arabs easily dominate three of Iraq's 18 provinces.

Meanwhile, many ordinary Iraqis say they are angry about the months-long wrangling over the constitution, which they say has left politicians too busy to attend to critical issues, such as providing basic services.

In the Baghdad slum of Sadr City, children play soccer amid heaps of uncollected garbage and rivers of raw sewage that course through entire neighborhoods.

Fifty-year-old Sadr City resident Nuhad Bandar Nassar says what Iraqis need more than anything right now is clean water and electricity. He says he believes a new constitution will do nothing to help alleviate the suffering of the people.

Mr. Nassar says all the leaders in Iraq are so preoccupied with fighting for their own political power and wealth, they are totally ignoring the Iraqi people. He says they do not seem to care that many people do not have enough water and electricity to survive.

Mr. Nassar's sentiment is being echoed in other parts of Iraq. Last Sunday, in the Shi'ite town of Samawa, south of Baghdad, protests over the lack of electricity and water turned into a riot outside the governor's office. The riot ended when police opened fire on a crowd of about 1,000 people, killing one protester and wounding dozens.