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Some Sunnis in Iraq plan to vote for constitution

JADIDAH, Iraq—Mohammed Hamed al-Obadi doesn't like the proposed constitution that Iraqis will vote up or down on Saturday. When he walks through the dusty streets of his Sunni Muslim neighborhood, very few people have much good to say about it.

But, unanimously, they agree they'll vote to make it law.

"It's time for the Sunni people to get involved in the democratic process," said the 50-year-old son of a Sunni tribal sheik. "We boycotted the vote last January, and we lost because of it. This time, we must show our support for one Iraq by approving this constitution, then we must make it work for us, from the inside."

That attitude, to the extent that it's shared by other members of Iraq's Sunni minority, suggests a hopeful turn in Iraq's struggling democracy. Sunnis, roughly 20 percent of the population, were in control of the country under Saddam Hussein and they're now the backbone of the insurgency. U.S. and Iraqi leaders hope that broad Sunni participation in the constitutional vote and subsequent parliamentary elections will sap support for the insurgents.

One influential Sunni group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, came out against the constitution Thursday, arguing that it would "fragment Iraq and destroy its identity." The debate came as American and Iraqi forces increased security around the country before the vote. A four-day holiday began and a nighttime curfew was to be imposed. International borders will be closed Friday and travel between provinces halted.

The referendum had been expected to divide Iraq along the lines of Shiite Muslims and Kurds versus Sunni Arabs, the nation's three largest population groups. Before Wednesday, Sunnis had objected that the constitution didn't serve their needs and had warned that they would try to vote it down.

Wednesday night, however, leaders reached a compromise that led important Sunni leaders to give their blessing to the document. Still, officials worried about not only whether Sunni voters would follow that lead, but whether people would even hear about the compromise. The concern was especially high for small villages such as Jadidah.

Al-Obadi and his neighbors hadn't heard the news, but it didn't matter to them.

He spoke from his city of 15,000 on the edge of Diyala province, where the mixed Sunni-Shiite population makes the area a bellwether for Iraq and a prime spot for insurgent violence. Passage of the constitution in Diyala would almost assure passage nationwide.

The town is about 10 miles from Baqouba and 25 from Baghdad, both cities known for insurgent violence. Jadidah is distinctive because its residents don't fear the U.S. military, or vice versa, as is the case throughout much of the country. On the streets, American soldiers still make faces and chase laughing kids or hand out candies. Parents still smile and wave them over to say hello.

Al-Obadi agreed to take a reporter and interpreter from Knight Ridder on a walking tour of his part of the city after they arrived with a U.S. Army patrol, although no military official spoke to him during the visit.

As he walked, the accompanying party swelled from a few to a dozen to several dozen.

Along the way, they complained that wealthy Shiites across the highway and along the Tigris River had electricity and water and sewage, while their area remained without these basic services.

"We accept that life has problems, that the constitution has problems," said Arkan Talib, 22. "But it will be our constitution. And we will make a perfect nation with it."

They passed homes surrounded by crumbling adobe fences and collapsing walls, where infants toddled without the diapers their families couldn't afford, and they complained that the constitution offered more to Shiites and Kurds than to Sunnis.

But, as Ryadh Qaseem, 30, noted: "What choice do we have?"

A dozen heads nodded as Qaseem said that while everyone worried about quality of life, everyone was kept awake at night by security problems.

"Security, safety for our families, that is first in everybody's minds," he said. "This document gives us a chance to control the violence. Everything else can wait."


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-SUNNIS


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