Federalism seen a dividing point for Iraqis
Thousands rally in support of Hussein, against new charter
BAGHDAD -- Rebuffed in the constitution deliberations, Sunni Arabs now face a dilemma: Boycott the Oct. 15 referendum on a new charter and hand the Shi'ites a landslide victory, or take part in a vote that demographics suggest they'll lose.
But the Shi'ite community itself is divided over the constitution, and interviews on Baghdad streets indicate the key federalism proposal may be a hard sell to many on both sides.
About 2,000 people, mostly Sunnis, marched yesterday against the constitution in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. Some carried pictures of Hussein and repeated chants heard in countless stage-managed protests during his regime: ''We sacrifice our souls and blood for you, Saddam."
Others carried pictures of radical Shi'ite clerics Moqtada al-Sadr and Jawad al-Khalisi, who have joined the Sunnis in opposing the constitutional draft because of federalism -- which critics fear will lead to the disintegration of Iraq.
It seems unlikely that mainstream Sunni Arab leaders will launch an organized campaign to keep Sunnis from the polls in October.
The Jan. 30 boycott was widely perceived by Sunnis as a disaster, handing control of the 275-member National Assembly to Shi'ites and Kurds. The Shi'ite-Kurd alliance then pushed through demands for federated mini-states and set the legal foundation for purging thousands of Sunni Arabs from government jobs because of past membership in Saddam's Ba'ath Party.
Instead, Sunni Arabs are urging followers to register by the Thursday deadline and reject the constitution in the referendum. Voter registration in the Sunni stronghold of Anbar province was extended for a week so more people could sign up.
The very Sunni clerics who railed last January against an election ''under foreign military occupation" are now urging their people to take part in both the referendum and the parliamentary balloting in December.
Rejection of the charter would mean elections in December for a new parliament under the rules of the interim constitution approved in March 2004 and still in effect. The new parliament would start the entire process of drafting a constitution from scratch.
Once the constitution becomes law, it cannot be amended for eight years; under the law now, the draft charter cannot be changed because it has been submitted to parliament.
Demographics are a big problem for the Sunni Arabs -- an estimated 20 percent of Iraq's 27 million people.
Sunni Arabs form the majority in four of the 18 provinces but their numbers are overwhelming in only two, Anbar and Salahuddin. Under a quirky election rule, a ''no" vote by a two-thirds majority in any three provinces would defeat the referendum.
The three-province veto was a concession to the Kurds during negotiations for the March 2004 interim constitution, which remains in effect until the new charter is ratified. Now, it's the Sunnis' best card.
In many areas, the Sunni majority may not reach two-thirds. Each of the Sunni-dominated provinces contains substantial Shi'ite and Kurdish communities. With no minimum turnout required, a few Shi'ite and Kurdish voters approving the constitution would be enough to swing a province to the ''yes" camp -- unless Sunni Arabs turn out in force and the other groups are intimidated to stay home.
Many ordinary Iraqis are unfamiliar with the details of the constitutional debate because while TV coverage has improved, an electricity shortage prevents people from seeing it.