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Iraqi National Assembly changes standard for rejecting constitution

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Just 10 days before a referendum on Iraq's proposed new constitution, the National Assembly on Wednesday again changed the rules for its approval, going back to the original plan that would allow the constitution to be rejected if two-thirds of voters in three provinces vote no.

The change came after intense pressure from the United States and the United Nations.

Many Iraqi lawmakers said they were reluctant to agree to it out of fear that an expected increase in violence would keep many supporters of the constitution from voting and allow a relatively small number of opponents to defeat it.

That violence was evident Wednesday throughout the country. In the bloodiest attack, a bomb exploded during evening prayer at a Shiite mosque in Hilla, home of ancient Babylon, interrupting the first day of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting and reflection (Sunnis began celebrating Ramadan on Tuesday). The blast killed at least 25 people and injured 87, according to police sources, and caused the mosque to collapse. More people were feared trapped, and rescue efforts continued into the night.

Politicians said they took steps earlier this week to make approval of the constitution easier out of concern that a combination of Ramadan, the referendum vote and U.S. and Iraqi crackdowns on expected insurgent strongholds would increase violence and keep people from the polls on Oct. 15.

Shiite and Kurdish members of the National Assembly approved Monday a measure that would require two-thirds of all registered voters in three provinces to have voted "no" for the constitution to be rejected. Previously, the standard had been two-thirds of those who actually voted.

But the change was denounced as undemocratic by Sunni politicians as well as the United Nations and others, and Wednesday, the National Assembly reversed itself. Many remained unhappy about changing back.

"There is a conspiracy against the constitution," said National Assembly member Jawad al-Mailki. "If the terrorists collect only 30 votes in three provinces but scare everyone else from coming out to vote, they would demolish the will of 14 million Iraqis. I consider the constitution now fallen."

The debate Wednesday focused on an official U.N. request to review the policy. The United States has not commented on what, if any, role it played in the discussions, but there were strong indications that the Bush administration actively pressed for the change.

Hussein Shahrestani, speaker of the Assembly, noted the U.N. concerns while voicing his own: "The problem we are having here is that terrorists are trying to hinder the process."

He noted a U.N. solution, which he suggested the assembly adopt: increase security in problem areas before, during and after the election.

"Iraqi forces should provide security for people in all provinces to make them feel safe going to the poll centers," he said.

Lawmaker Sheik Homam Hamoodi said that without the terrorist pressure, there would be no chance of the constitution failing, but that the assembly had to reverse its earlier action.

"This is democracy and we have to accept it, with all its negatives and positives," he said.

Even with the change, many believe the constitution is likely to pass. A recent poll by the Iraqi Research Institute indicated the constitution would pass in every Iraqi province except for Anbar, home to Ramadi and Fallujah and the scene of a U.S. offensive against insurgents.

Still, the violence left some nervous about the prospects.

"Look at the reality we are living in, assassinations, sectarianism," said Rasem al-Awadi, an aide to former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. "How can you expect people to go out and vote?"


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