Sunni heartland driving future of Iraq’s charter
By Steven Komarow, USA TODAY

TIKRIT, Iraq — Inside a sprawling, nondescript building just off the dusty main drag is a control center fitted with computers and wide-screen TVs for monitoring next month’s national referendum on the constitution.
Gov. Mahmoud al-Sheikhty reviews preparations with Iraqi and American security forces. Aides scurry as phones ring, and sweet tea is demanded for his guests.

The large, black-haired man in a black suit looks like he could be a relative of Saddam Hussein, not surprising in this city known as Saddam’s hometown. Under Saddam, the region was showered with wealth and palaces like no other in Iraq. When the dictator fell, though, the pendulum of power swung far away from this city north of Baghdad.

Until now.

In Iraq’s Sunni heartland, where tens of thousands of Sunni Arabs sat out January’s elections, the future of Iraq and its constitution could be decided. Al-Sheikhty and other leaders say this time they’ll vote and if the document isn’t rewritten before then, the vote Oct. 15 will be overwhelmingly no.

“I don’t want to go very deep into the negatives,” al-Sheikhty says politely. Then he dives in. From the Sunni perspective, the charter drafted by the majority Shiite Muslims and their Kurdish coalition partners is “unfair and unjust.”

“All the people are going to vote no,” he predicts, unless it’s amended. This time the Sunni Arabs are organized. This control center, and satellite facilities through Salah al-Din province, will make sure the tally is properly registered.

Predicting the outcome is risky in a country where ethnic population figures are vague at best. The majority Shiite Arab and Kurdish parties are backing the document. But Sunnis have large populations in four provinces, though it is far from clear if they represent a two-thirds majority in those areas.

Even if the constitution is approved by a majority of voters on Oct. 15, it would be defeated if two-thirds of voters in at least three provinces vote no. That’s what the Sunni opposition is counting on for defeat.

A poll released this week by the International Republican Institute, a congressionally funded group that promotes democracy abroad, shows a dramatic split between Shiite and Sunni voters. In the Shiite south, 63% said the proposed constitution “represents the will of the Iraqi people.” In Sunni areas, only 35% agreed with that statement. The poll was based on 2,728 interviews conducted earlier this month.

But the Sunnis may be too divided politically to mobilize enough voters in the key provinces to kill the constitution, according to a report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based group dedicated to conflict prevention.

Many Sunni voters sat out the Jan. 31 elections, as a protest or because violence in the Sunni heartland made going to the polls too dangerous. Turnout was only 2% in heavily Sunni Anbar province.

This time Sunni leaders are urging people to go to the polls. At a meeting in Jordan last week, about 150 Sunni clerics and tribal leaders called on voters to reject the constitution. There are signs Sunnis are mobilizing. Former U.S. ambassador John Negroponte said recently that a million more Sunnis are registered to vote this time.

The critical provinces include Salah al-Din, of which Tikrit is the capital, Anbar, Ninevah and Diyala.

If the constitution is defeated, the current government will be dissolved and new elections would be held in December. The process to write a new constitution would start over.

Among Sunni objections to the proposed charter:

Fatin Abed al-Kader, director of the Iraq Children’s Organization, a child care network in Tikrit, says the constitution reflects Shiite and Kurdish priorities, when it should represent all Iraqis.

“I assure you the (Sunni) people, even if they just lost their legs, they will go to vote because it’s our future,” she says.

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