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Sunni opposition could derail Iraq's proposed constitution

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Top Sunni Muslim Arab leaders lashed out Tuesday against a draft constitution given to the Iraqi parliament the day before, threatening to mobilize voters against it in an October referendum that could split the nation even further along sectarian lines.

Shiite Muslim politicians from the majority group that controls Iraq's government said they wanted to work out a deal with the Sunnis, but that they planned to push the constitution through the parliament later this week and then present it to the Iraqi public for a vote with or without Sunni agreement.

If the Sunnis are successful in getting two-thirds of the voters in three of Iraq's provinces to vote against the constitution, it would scuttle the document and start the process over again, probably angering the Shiites, who are eager to assume control in a nation where they were oppressed for more than 30 years. If the Sunnis aren't successful, it could further alienate a minority population that's already the base of an insurgency that's killed thousands.

Secretary of State Donald H. Rumsfeld, in Washington, dismissed the idea that Sunni opposition to the constitution could spark a civil war.

President Bush, traveling in Idaho, praised the Iraqi effort to draw up a constitution. "The fact that Iraq will have a democratic constitution that honors women's rights, the rights of minorities, is going to be an important change in the broader Middle East," Bush said.

Neither Sunni nor Shiite leaders were optimistic Tuesday that a deal on the constitution could be struck.

At issue are problems that have long bedeviled the nation:

_Distribution of oil revenues. The Kurds to the north and the Shiites to the south are in areas rich in oilfields. The Sunnis in central and western Iraq are not. The Kurds and Shiites want the provinces to retain more control of oil and gas proceeds than has previously been the case, wresting power from the central government in Baghdad. The constitution says the issue of oil distribution will be decided in the future. It also says, though, that when there are disputes between provincial and federal laws, "the priority will be for the provincial law."

_Baath Party. Sunnis are furious that Shiites and Kurds inserted language naming the Baath Party a terrorist organization. Many Sunnis see the party, that of former dictator Saddam Hussein, as an Arab nationalist organization that was subverted by Saddam's thirst for power. Membership was often compulsory for Iraqis seeking government or white-collar positions.

_Islam. The draft says no law in Iraq can contradict Islamic law. Despite language that also says laws can't contradict human rights or democracy, Sunnis worry that Shiite clerics will decide what contradicts Islam. They fear this could create a de facto theocracy, similar to neighboring Iran.

The Kurdish and Shiite factions are willing to discuss changing only the portions of the constitution that relate to wealth distribution, the Baath Party and the structure of the presidency, said Laith Kuba, the prime minister's spokesman.

"Except for these three issues, this is the best thing they can accomplish," he said. "This is the best they can get."

Saleh al-Mutlak, a senior Sunni leader, said the Shiite and Kurd leadership bypassed not only the Sunnis but also the constitutional drafting committee, writing the constitution in closed-door meetings attended by political bloc leaders.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Mutlak said he still hadn't received a complete copy of the constitution.

"If they adopt this, all the Iraqi nationalists will be against it, all the Sunni will be against it," he said. "We will tell the people to say no to the constitution."

Homam Hamoodi, a Shiite cleric who led the constitutional drafting committee, dismissed the Sunnis' objections.

"When I said we reached an agreement, I didn't say we had a consensus. But we have a majority in favor of the constitution," he said. "Those who represent the Arab Sunnis are not elected. Who can tell if these people represent the Arab Sunnis?"

Hamoodi was referring to the fact that most Sunnis boycotted national elections in January, putting the Shiites in position to sweep much of the balloting.

The Sunnis who've participated in the constitutional process are moderates for the most part. Some Iraqis fear that by estranging those Sunnis, the broader Sunni population may support groups such as the Muslim Scholars Association, which has boycotted the political process entirely, calling it a farce put on by the occupying American power.

The representatives of the Kurds and Shiites "met for long hours and they would agreed on certain issues, and then show the agreed-upon sections to the third party (Sunnis) and in many cases it was shown to us as the only solution," said Tariq al-Hashimi, the general secretary of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a relatively moderate Sunni organization.

The Sunnis, he said, were told, "you should accept, but if you refuse it we will go ahead."

Hamoodi said Sunnis were misconstruing the process.

"The constitution was not written secretly," he said.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad on Tuesday called the constitution a "significant accomplishment for Iraq and Iraqis," but acknowledged that there were several remaining issues to resolve.

"The Iraqis are suffering. Iraq is going through a difficult transition," he said. "This is not the time to achieve for one's self all that one can at the expense of others. This is a time to reach out across ethnic groups, across sects."


(Chin reports for the St. Paul Pioneer Press; Dulaimy is a Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent. Special correspondent Huda Ahmed contributed to this report.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.