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From Earlier Missteps, Iraq's Sunnis Learn Political Lessons

BAGHDAD -- Only seven months ago, leaders of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority had persuaded legions of constituents to ignore parliamentary elections, calling the country's democratization a sham.

Today the same leaders appear in mosques and on Arab media to urge Sunni Arabs to vote in the country's constitution referendum in October. Sunni-led insurgency groups accustomed to using Web sites to advertise the grim aftermath of their crimes now use those sites to urge Sunnis to register to vote.

The aim is straightforward. Many Sunni Arabs oppose the draft constitution pending before the country's National Assembly and hope to defeat it in the Oct. 15 referendum.

But the recent televised images of long lines of Sunnis at voter-registration centers also reflect a growing desire for inclusion in Iraq's evolving political landscape, as well as a realization among Sunnis that the de facto boycott of the parliamentary elections in January was a major miscalculation.

"Sunnis feel they missed their chance and want to compensate for that," said Hazim al-Shemmari, a political analyst and professor at Baghdad University.

Leaders in Washington and Baghdad have long believed that drawing disaffected Sunnis back into the political fold in Iraq is key to stemming the 2-year-old insurgency, made up largely of Sunni Baathists and Saddam Hussein loyalists.

Yet the burgeoning Sunni enthusiasm for politics has a worrisome flip side: Sunni leaders are pushing their brethren to vote largely because they want the country's draft constitution rejected.

Strength in numbers

Together with followers of the rebellious Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, the Sunnis could muster a bloc large enough to defeat the constitution, dealing a decisive blow to the country's attempts to forge a democracy and quell the ceaseless violence that plagues parts of Iraq. The country would have to dissolve parliament and again begin the painstaking path toward electing a new legislature, drafting a constitution and voting on it.

For days, Shiite and Kurd negotiators have wrangled with Sunni leaders over the two most troublesome provisions for Sunnis: Shiite-Kurd insistence on federalism that would give them autonomy within their oil-rich regions and a ban on former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party ever holding public office. Late Friday, it became clear that a consensus on those sticking points would not be reached.

"Even if we had eight months, we wouldn't get there," said an Iraqi government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

With negotiations at a stalemate, parliament speaker Hajim al-Hassani said Saturday that Shiite and Kurd negotiators will submit the final draft of the constitution to the National Assembly, Iraq's transitional parliament, Sunday.

That draft did not sway Sunni Arab negotiators, who dismissed it as "unacceptable." The National Assembly, made up mostly of Shiites and Kurds, may vote on the draft, but a vote is not required, and the legislators may simply put the fate of the constitution in the hands of Iraqi voters on Oct. 15.

Sunni Arabs represent about 20 percent of Iraq's population, but they dominated Iraqi politics from 1920 until the fall of Hussein. The country's Shiites, about 60 percent of the population, were oppressed and neglected under Hussein's rule.

Sunni Arab leaders now admit that when they turned their backs on the January election, they cheated themselves out of a bigger role in the evolution of the country's postwar government. The Shiite-Kurd majority in the National Assembly forged ahead with constitution plans and allowed 15 Sunnis on the constitution-writing committee because of pressure from Washington.

Since then, Sunni Arabs contend they have been largely relegated to the sidelines during the drafting process. Much of the constitution had already been hammered out when Sunnis were invited to the first set of meetings, said Sadoun Zubaydi, a Sunni negotiator and Hussein's former translator.

"We have always been half-involved," he said.

Shiite negotiator Ali al-Dabbagh dismissed claims that Sunni Arabs had been largely shut out of the drafting process, saying all committee meetings were videotaped and that Sunnis regularly attended.

"This claim contradicts with reality," al-Dabbagh said.

Opposing viewpoints

Laith Kubba, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, said negotiations over the new constitution have been hindered not by Sunni non-participation but by the "irreconcilable views" Sunnis and the Shiite-Kurdish alliance have on stumbling blocks such as federalism.

Sunnis view the issue of federalism on two levels. They worry that giving in to federalism would detach their minority from Iraq's vast oil wealth, which is in the Kurdish north and in southern, Shiite-controlled provinces. More broadly, they are concerned that federalism could lead to Iraq's breakup.

Those concerns are reflected in sermons imams have been giving at Sunni mosques. At Um al-Qura, a Sunni mosque in Baghdad's Ghazaliyah neighborhood, imam Mahmoud al-Sumaidae urged followers to ensure that Iraq's future constitution does not threaten the country's unity.

"We reject a constitution that divides this country," al-Sumaidae said.

That message struck a chord with Omar al-Dulaimi, 34, a cabdriver who registered to vote Wednesday.

"The Americans, extremist Shiites and Kurds want to impose a constitution that serves their interests," al-Dulaimi said. "They want to divide this country because its wealth is in the north and south only. Iraq is for everyone, and this constitution will not pass if they don't remove the word `federalism' from it."

To achieve the demise of Iraq's draft constitution, opponents would need either a two-thirds majority in at least three of the country's 18 provinces, or a nationwide majority vote against the document. Sunni Arabs do not have a two-thirds majority in three provinces, but they may ally with Sadr, another constitution opponent whose core following stretches from Baghdad's impoverished Sadr City slum to several southern Shiite cities.

By Alex Rodriguez
Chicago Tribune


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