Monday, October 17, 2005

Sunnis Appear To Fall Short In Iraq Vote

The Iraqi constitution appeared headed for approval yesterday, as early returns from Sunni-dominated regions indicated that the Sunnis could not muster enough "no" votes to defeat the charter.
An Iraqi woman casts her vote in Iraq's constitution referendum symbolizing a step forward for women's rights in the country.
With passage virtually assured, the main question now facing U.S. and Iraqi leaders is whether the Sunni Arab minority will accept the results of Saturday's referendum or will once again complain of being left out of the political process. The charter's opponents faced an uphill battle. To defeat it, they needed to marshal a two-thirds "no" vote in three of Iraq's 18 provinces. In two of the four provinces where Sunnis are concentrated, early results showed that the constitution would be approved by a wide margin. That leaves only two provinces -- Anbar in western Iraq and Salahuddin in the country's center -- where the charter could be voted down. While final results are not expected until later this week, U.S. officials yesterday were touting the constitution's passage. But they were quick to add it was unlikely to halt Iraq's raging insurgency. "I have no doubt that the terrorists are going to continue to try to derail the political process, but they've failed every time," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in London. The U.S. military reported yesterday that five American soldiers were killed Saturday by a roadside bomb in the western city of Ramadi, an insurgent stronghold. The deaths brought the number of U.S. service members who have died in Iraq to at least 1,975. Like other Bush administration officials, Rice argued that the constitution's passage would help bring more Iraqis into politics and isolate the insurgents. "What it will certainly help to do is to broaden the base of the political process," she said. But there were signs that some powerful Sunni factions would not accept the referendum results. Several Sunni leaders said they were convinced the charter would be defeated in three Sunni provinces, and accused the U.S. of interfering with the results. "We are warning the Sunni community of acts of fraud," Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni leader, told Al-Jazeera TV. "If the results are tampered with, it might lead to civil war." The referendum followed months of grueling negotiations among Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. Under Iraq's transitional law, a draft of the constitution had to be approved by parliament on Aug. 15 to allow for a nationwide vote two months later. But Iraqi leaders got off to a late start and had to extend the August deadline several times. Sunnis posed the biggest obstacle to achieving a consensus. Making up 20 percent of Iraq's population, Sunnis had ruled the country since it gained independence in 1932. Their power dissipated after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime and, by boycotting January's elections, they were left with little influence in parliament.
Iraqi referendum officials handle ballot boxes before counting the votes in Baqouba, Iraq on Sunday.
They re-entered the political fray by demanding greater representation on the constitution-writing committee. Even after parliament approved the draft charter, Sunnis were set to vote en masse against it because they believed it paved the way for a weak central government and Iraq's eventual breakup. Under intense U.S. pressure, the draft constitution was amended last week to open a four-month window for more changes next year, after a new parliament is elected by Dec. 15. That provision persuaded one of the largest Sunni groups, the Iraqi Islamic Party, to support the charter. But while the party's decision convinced some Sunnis to vote for the constitution, many other Sunnis considered the turnaround a betrayal. In Washington, Democrats were far less optimistic than the Bush administration in their assessment of the constitution's likely impact. Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the charter is still divisive because it leaves key issues undecided. "That means political unity, which is absolutely essential to defeat the insurgency, does not exist in Iraq," Levin said on NBC's "Meet the Press." Negotiations were deadlocked for months over three key issues: the role of Islam in civil laws, the desire of Kurds in the north and Shias in the south to establish semi-independent regions under a federal system with a weak central government, and the paramount question of how to distribute Iraq's oil revenues. In its final draft, the charter was vague on how to divide the oil wealth. But it did guarantee the Kurds' right to maintain their autonomous region and paved the way for the Shias to create new ones.