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Opposition to Iraqi constitution weakening

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The two strongest opponents of Iraq's proposed new constitution said this week that they wouldn't campaign against it aggressively, making it likely that voters will approve the constitution in an Oct. 15 referendum.

Passage would be a victory for the Bush administration's Iraq policy, but it's unclear whether the document will produce a stable Iraqi government with broad public support or further alienate the country's Sunni Muslim Arab minority.

Rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's representatives said that while he's not thrilled about the constitution, he likely wouldn't encourage his followers to oppose it.

Hazem al-Araji, a senior al-Sadr aide, said that al-Sadr has formed a committee to review the document and that once he hears from them he'll make a final decision.

"But for now, his opinion is neutral," al-Araji said.

The largest Sunni political group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, said that although it has encouraged its supporters to vote down the document, its efforts are focused on the December election for a new National Assembly.

"There are powers that will make sure this bad constitution passes," said Ala'a al-Maki, a party spokesman. "We are focusing more on ensuring the Sunnis participate in the next election."

Both al-Sadr's supporters and members of the Islamic Party said they're concerned that federalist provisions in the constitution could divide the country along sectarian lines.

Al-Sadr's and the Islamic Party's positions—coupled with last week's call from associates of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most powerful Shiite Muslim cleric, to pass the document—virtually assure that the constitution will pass. A word from the widely revered al-Sistani will sway much of the Shiite populace, which makes up 60 percent of Iraqis.

Hazim Abdel Hamid al-Nuaimi, a professor of politics at al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, said the Islamic Party is focusing on the December elections because it wants to influence how the constitution is implemented.

"They don't think this constitution is the end of the political process," al-Nuaimi said.

The best hope is that Sunnis will participate in elections even though they oppose the constitution, and that broadening participation in a legitimate political process will undercut the insurgency, which draws its support from the Sunni community.

Still, some worry that the constitution could further fuel sectarianism. Some Sunni members of the constitutional committee said the proposed document serves Shiites and Kurds more than the Sunnis.

For the referendum to fail, two-thirds of the voters in three of Iraq's 19 provinces must reject it.

Anbar province, a Sunni stronghold, is expected to vote "no."

Had al-Sadr told his followers to vote against the constitution, Baghdad—a province by itself—also might have voted it down. Al-Sadr has as many as 2 million supporters among Baghdad's 5 million residents.

Sheik Homan al-Hamoodi, the chairman of the constitutional committee, said that the third "no" vote might have come from Salah al-Din or Diyala provinces, ethnically mixed northern communities where al-Sadr has influence.

"There is no way this constitution won't pass," al-Nuaimi said. "The law only allows one way to vote it down, and it is now impossible."

Earlier this month, al-Sadr suggested that he'd oppose the document, and some thought he'd issue a fatwa, or religious decree, telling followers to vote it down. But in the last week, his advisers backpedaled.

Members of the Islamic Party and the Muslim Scholars Association, a prominent Sunni group, had said privately that they hoped to build an alliance with al-Sadr to stop the referendum from passing.

Although the Islamic Party isn't rallying its base against the constitution, it is encouraging Sunnis to vote "no" in sermons in mosques and mass advertising.

Al-Hamoodi, of the constitutional committee, said that al-Sadr's tepid endorsement still could sway some to vote against it, but not enough to reject it. And he said that al-Sadr is withholding his opinion because it does not benefit him politically.

"His position will be positive. Even if he has a negative opinion, he won't share it," al-Hamoodi said. "He knows if this constitution fails, they can't get a better one."

Al-Sadr doesn't want to come out against al-Sistani, he said, because that would force Shiites to choose between the two. And depending on whom they follow, that could make al-Sadr look weak politically.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Alaa al Baldawy and Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this report from Baghdad.)


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