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Iraq divided along ethnic, religious lines in constitution debate

HALABJA, Iraq—Mariwan Kamal Salam stood behind his barber's chair in this northern Iraqi town, trimming a customer's hair and passing the day by talking about the upcoming referendum to approve a proposed new constitution.

Halabja was the site of Saddam Hussein's chemical attacks, which killed thousands in 1988, and it's not uncommon to see residents who still bear scars. The constitution, a simple stack of pages, isn't enough to make Salam believe in a united Iraq.

"I want Kurdistan to be separated from the Iraqi government, because the Shiites and the Sunnis are going to repeat what Saddam did to us," Salam said, as Kurdish music floated through the air. "They are enticing us with false promises and lies."

Throughout the week, Iraqis of every stripe traded accusations, rumors and hopes about their nation's proposed new constitution. The proposed charter was approved last Sunday by the national assembly, with Shiite and Kurdish delegates approving and Sunni Arab delegates objecting.

Interviews in bakeries in Shiite Najaf, tea shops in the sooty, traffic-clogged streets of Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad, and Internet cafes in Kurdish northern Iraq showed that Iraqis are split largely along the same ethnic and religious lines as their leaders are.

Shiites, some 60 percent of Iraq's 27 million population, expressed joy for a bill of rights that protects them from the torture and discrimination they faced under Saddam's Baath Party and a constitution that enshrines Islam as a basis for law.

The Kurds favored a provision that sets a 2007 deadline for settling whether Kirkuk, an oil-rich city now disputed by Kurds and Arabs, should be a part of an autonomous Kurdish enclave.

And Sunnis, who make up 15 to 20 percent of Iraqis, said they're convinced that the other two groups are using the constitutional process to divvy up the nation's oil, split into autonomous regions and punish the Sunnis for some 30 years of oppression by Saddam.

None of which should be surprising, said Jonathan Morrow, an adviser to the committee that drafted the document.

"In broad terms, it is a Kurdish-Shiite constitution that was presented as a fait accompli to the Sunni Arabs, who were not in the room when it was written," said Morrow, who works with the United States Institute of Peace. "It was written around Kurdish and Shiite dinner tables of the (U.S.-secured) Green Zone."

Already, many Sunni leaders are urging their followers to reject the constitution when it's presented to voters for approval in October. In the northern Sunni stronghold of Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, hundreds of people took to the streets Monday with signs reading, "No to the constitution, yes to Iraqi unity!"

In the Shiite south, residents of Najaf marched through the streets praising the constitution. On Tuesday, Iraqi national television showed a crowd of hundreds parading through Nasiriyah, shouting, "Our constitution is finished. ... Die, you Baathists."

The blessing given the constitution by a committee of top Shiite clergy, the marja'iva, was important to Anwar Sami, 45, a Najaf baker. "We are sure that they are working for the benefits of the Iraqi people, and they know about many things that we don't know about," he said.

Alaa Haider, a 22-year-old university student in Najaf, sounded a similar tone.

"I see in the constitution all the basics and positives ... to build a strong unified Iraq, because the people who wrote it ... had good scientific and religious capabilities," Haider said. "As long the constitution is legislated on the basis of Islam, that means our rights are preserved."

At a leather factory in central Baghdad, two co-workers debated women's rights and the role of Islam, two of the most contentious points in the constitution. The constitution gives Iraqis the choice of settling family legal matters by religious court or civil law.

Akran Mohammed, a Shiite Kurd married to an Arab, said he supports Islam as the law of the land. Umm Rani al-Tai, a Turkmen Sunni woman married to a Shiite, said including Islamic law in the constitution rolls back women's rights.

"Women will be hit, children will be taken from divorcees and my husband will be able to marry another woman without telling me," she complained. "I don't agree with this constitution and will vote no. Women are not animals to be beaten."

"Well, if she doesn't do anything wrong, she won't be," Mohammed retorted. "And there's nothing wrong with taking more than one wife."

"Then how can you say our rights will be preserved?" al-Tai asked.

"It's all written in the Quran," Mohammed said. "We cannot go against it."

Such debate is evident in nearly every corner of Iraq. It even appeared during a news conference Tuesday with Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to Iraq who worked behind the scenes on the new constitution, and top Sunni politician Adnan al-Dulaimi.

Khalilzad, grinning broadly, said he was pleased that Dulaimi was participating in the political process. Dulaimi, who looked angry and was almost shouting, declared the constitution illegal, called for the dissolution of the Iraqi parliament and charged that Shiite-led Interior Ministry death squads were rounding up and killing Sunnis, including at least 30 whose bodies were found south of Baghdad this week.

Khalilzad remained stoic when asked whether such sentiments worried him.

"Of course there is civil strife in Iraq," he said. "That is not a secret."


(Al Baldawy is a Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent who reported from Baghdad. Contributing were special correspondents Hassan al Jubouri in Tikrit, Qassim Mohammed in Najaf and Saeed Omer in Halabja.)


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