Sunnis split on late deal to revise Iraq charter

Posted in Iraq | 13-Oct-05 | Author: Dexter Filkins| Source: International Herald Tribune

Prominent Iraqi leaders at Wednesday night's National Assembly session, when changes to the proposed constitution were accepted.
BAGHDAD Sunni leaders offered a mixed reaction Wednesday to a last-minute agreement designed to bolster the prospects of the Iraqi constitution, which is set to go before Iraqi voters in a nationwide referendum Saturday.

The agreement came as insurgents pressed their campaign to wreck the referendum. A suicide bomber killed 30 Iraqis at an army recruitment center on Wednesday in a northern town where another bomber had struck just a day earlier, The Associated Press reported.

A number of Sunni religious and political leaders, whose community forms the backbone of the guerrilla insurgency, said they would continue to oppose the draft charter, despite the agreement Tuesday of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's largest Sunni political party. Among the rejectionists was the Association of Muslim Scholars, which represents hundreds of Sunni clerics from across the country.

"We are against this constitution because we think it encourages the sectarian division of this country," said Isam Al Rawi, of the Muslim clerics.

But at least one conservative Sunni leader, Mahmood Al Mashhadani, declared Wednesday that he had changed his mind and decided to endorse the constitution and urge Iraqis to approve it Saturday.

Mashhadani made the statement a day after Iraqi leaders announced that they had agreed to insert a mechanism into the constitution that could allow for substantial changes to the constitution after the new, full-term national assembly is chosen in the December elections. That agreement prompted the endorsement of the Iraqi Islamic Party.

"It's a hard fact that if we want to achieve our demands of freeing the country from occupation, we have to engage in the political process to do so," Mashhadani said. "We will call on all the voters to say yes, because there is no meaning in saying no."

The Iraqi National Assembly approved the revision Wednesday evening, when no one raised any objections to the proposal.

The mixed reaction to the deal, while perhaps not quite what the Iraqi government and the United States were hoping for, suggested that their strategy of driving a wedge into Iraq's Sunni population was showing some success.

Iraqi leaders hailed the deal as all but ensuring that the constitution would be approved Saturday. Sunnis are thought to comprise a majority in only three of Iraq's provinces, and they could defeat the constitution if they mustered two-thirds majorities in all three provinces against it.

That prospect, which seemed unlikely before, seemed more improbable after the agreement was made.

At a ceremony Wednesday, Shiite leaders said the agreement with the Iraqi Islamic Party had all but ensured the charter's success.

"We were confident before, but now we are totally confident," said Ali Dabagh, a member of the Shiite alliance that holds a majority of the seats in the National Assembly.

But for weeks, the greatest concern of Iraqi and American leaders has been that the constitution would pass without significant Sunni support, and possibly drive more Iraqis toward violence. Such an outcome would undercut one of the principal goals of the American-fostered democratic process that had been unfolding here over the past year: that the process itself would co-opt the insurgency by giving more Sunnis a take in the new Iraq.

So far, that has not happened. The Sunnis largely boycotted the elections in January, and then, in August, a group of Sunni leader refused to support the draft constitution agreed on by Shiite and Kurdish negotiators.

The deal Tuesday was the first sign that the Iraqi leaders, with American prodding, might begin to reverse that.

The breakthrough compromise - reached Tuesday night after days of intense negotiation - greatly increase the likelihood that the draft constitution will pass in the referendum.

Meanwhile, Sunni-led insurgents have stepped up attacks in a campaign to wreck the referendum and scare voters away from the polls. At least 433 people have been killed in violence in the last 17 days.

On Wednesday, for the second day in a row, a suicide attacker hit the northwestern town of Tal Afar.

The bomber set off explosives hidden under his clothes at the first of two checkpoints outside the army recruiting center in Tal Afar, where men were gathering to apply for jobs, said an army captain, Raad Ahmed, and a town police chief, Brigadier Najim Abdullah.

The captain and brigadier said at least 30 people were killed and 35 wounded.

A day earlier in Tal Afar, a suicide bomber killed 30 civilians and wounded 45 when he plowed his explosives-packed vehicle into a crowded outdoor market.

Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for that attack.

In August, U.S. and Iraqi forces conducted a major offensive in Tal Afar, 150 kilometers, or 95 miles, east of the Syrian border.

They claim to have killed 200 insurgents and driven many others out.

In other violence Wednesday, three suicide car bombs, two roadside blasts and two drive-by shootings killed three Iraqis and wounded 28 in Baghdad and the northwestern city of Baquba, the police said.

An explosion set by insurgents also shut down an oil pipeline from the northern city of Kirkuk to refineries in Beiji, an official said. The pipeline is open only intermittently because of incessant sabotage.

In Baghdad, Saad Naif al-Hardan, minister of provincial affairs, escaped an apparent assassination attempt when a convoy of cars preparing to pick him up at his office was hit by a suicide car bomb that wounded five bodyguards and five bystanders, the police said.

And two U.S. soldiers died and one was injured when their vehicle rolled over while on patrol during combat near Balad, 80 kilometers north of Baghdad, the military said.