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U.S. pressing Iraq's neighbors to help make referendum a success

WASHINGTON—With a vote on Iraq's draft constitution about a week away, the United States has launched a diplomatic drive to encourage Iraq's Arab neighbors to support the country's fragile political process.

James Jeffrey, the State Department's senior adviser on Iraq, is touring the Middle East, urging Saudi Arabia and other countries to denounce the insurgency, persuade Iraq's Sunni minority to vote in the Oct. 15 referendum and send senior envoys to Baghdad in a show of support.

Washington is hoping participation in the referendum by the disaffected Sunni minority will help create a foundation for political stability in Iraq and for an eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Jeffrey's mission follows one by the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, according to the State Department.

The diplomacy is facing significant obstacles.

Tension between Iraq and its Arab neighbors rose after Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters in Washington two weeks ago that Iraq is "gradually going toward disintegration."

Saud's comments reflect concern in Saudi Arabia—as in most Arab countries, dominated by Sunni Muslims—that the draft constitution would create a weak central state, giving too much power to Iraq's Shiite Muslims and failing to protect Sunnis. Sunnis are the main backers of Iraq's insurgency.

Arab neighbors also worry that a Shiite-dominated Iraq could spark demands for more power from their own Shiite populations.

"I don't think the Sunni Arab neighbors can possibly be very happy about what's going on in Iraq," said Juan Cole, a Middle East expert at the University of Michigan.

Sunni politicians have threatened to boycott the referendum or urge their backers to vote against it.

Saud's remarks and his charges of Iranian interference in Iraq outraged Iraqi Shiite political leaders. They rallied their supporters in Baghdad, telling them they should respond to Saud's comments by supporting the constitution.

Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a Shiite, called Saud "some bedouin riding a camel" and termed the Saudi monarchy as "tyrants" who mistreat their Shiite population.

Shiite leaders complain that Arab leaders and media haven't denounced Iraq's insurgents or helped rebuild the country politically.

Those sentiments are shared to some extent in Washington.

Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy, has held talks in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt, among others.

Asked about the mission, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters: "One thing that we are encouraging Iraq's neighbors to do is to find their own way to support Iraq's political and economic development as they move forward to building a more stable, prosperous country for themselves."

The 21-nation Arab League agreed to send a delegation to Baghdad this week to prepare for an Iraqi "reconciliation conference" scheduled for later this month.

It's the first mission of its kind since Saddam Hussein's government was overthrown in March 2003. Arab governments have been leery of sending diplomats to Iraq since the kidnapping and killing of Egypt's ambassador earlier this year.

Jordan's ambassador to Washington, Karim Kawar, said in an interview that his country is trying to help in Iraq without interfering.

"Jordan supports the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Iraq and wants to see a unified Iraq. However, details of the constitution are an internal Iraqi affair," Kawar said. "We continue to support the political process unfolding in Iraq, in which the majority rule does not undermine minority rights, rather protects and guarantees them."

U.S. officials acknowledge that more forceful Sunni political involvement could lead to the draft constitution's defeat at the polls. But some say that's a preferable outcome to more Sunnis abandoning the political path and joining the insurgency.

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(Nancy Youssef in Baghdad contributed to this report.)

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

Iraq

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