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A Divided Nation

Iraq Approves Constitution, Despite Sunnis

by PATRICK COCKBURN


in Baghdad

A majority of Iraqis have voted for the new federal constitution, which will divide the country into three regions and weaken central government.

The results, released by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, show that the Sunni Arabs largely voted against the constitution while the Shia and Kurds voted in favour. Overall, 78 per cent of Iraqis voted "yes" and 21 per cent voted "no”.

The Sunni, though only 20 per cent of the population, could still have defeated the referendum if two-thirds of voters in three provinces had voted no. The commission said yesterday that Nineveh–the one province that Sunnis opposed to the constitution had to win decisively–had voted against the constitution, but only by 55 per cent of the votes.

Anbar and Salahudin had earlier overwhelmingly rejected the constitution, with 97 per cent and 82 per cent voting against it respectively.

The United States and Britain as well as the Iraqi government will hope that the outcome will not be seen as a rebuff to the Sunnis, driving them into the arms of the resistance. Last-minute changes to the constitution allow a newly elected National Assembly to amend it by a majority vote next year, though the amendments will have to be voted on in a new referendum and can be vetoed once again by three provinces voting with two-thirds majorities against.

The constitution envisages a federal state in which Kurds and Shias will have important powers and the central government will be weakened. The Kurds will be able to maintain their own army in northern Iraq, local law will override federal law when the two are in conflict and oil developments will come under regional control. Existing oilfields will continue to be under the central government.

Many Sunnis see the constitution as, in effect, marking the break-up of Iraq. But it is unclear how far it will be implemented in the country outside Kurdistan–where the Kurds are already in control. They have no intention of giving up Kirkuk or lands from which they were driven under Saddam Hussein. Many Sunnis will claim that the result of the referendum was fixed but the commission said that it found no cases of violations that would have significantly affected the result. The result in Nineveh was uncertain because there are no clear figures for the breakdown between Sunni Arab, Kurd, Turkoman and Christian in the province.

Mosul itself is mostly Sunni Muslim but it is also a stronghold of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which at the last moment backed the constitution when concessions were made on amending it.

Iraq will now move towards an election on 15 December in which the Sunni Arabs, unlike in the election in January, are likely to participate. But the victors will still be the Kurds and the Shia, which together make up the present government. Although the Kurds are personally hostile to the government of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Prime Minister, they are determined to maintain the Kurdish-Shia alliance. They accuse Mr al-Jaafari of breaking pledges.

The referendum is unlikely to have much impact on the insurgency, which has sufficient support to continue regardless of developments in constitutional politics. On the other hand, the Sunni leadership is even further divided, with part of it wanting to boycott the referendum, some wanting to support the constitution and a majority against but wanting to vote it down.