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Iraq Constitution Passes, Amid Fragmented Sunnis

by PATRICK COCKBURN In Baghdad And KIM SENGUPTA In Basra The Independent

Iraqi voters have almost certainly approved a new constitution that reduces the authority of central government and gives strong powers to Kurdish and Shia regions.

Early counting of votes cast in the referendum on Saturday suggests that the Sunni community was unable to muster enough votes to veto the constitution. To do so, the Sunni needed to win two-thirds of the votes in three provinces.

There was a high turnout in Sunni-dominated provinces, but only in two of them–Anbar and Salahudin–did those opposed to the constitution appear to be heading for victory.

In Mosul in northern Iraq many Sunni abstained or were too frightened to go to the polls in the face of threats from resistance groups. A senior government source said 419,000 of the 643,000 votes cast in Nineveh province–75 per cent–were in favour of the constitution.

In Diyala, the fourth Sunni province, the number of “no” votes looked unlikely to be sufficient to block the charter.

The overall turnout was 63 to 64 per cent, according to the electoral commission chief, up from 58 per cent in the January election, because of the increased number of Sunni voting.

The outcome of the referendum shows that the Sunni leadership is more fragmented than ever. At a meeting earlier in the month they agreed that they would oppose the constitution either by boycotting or voting “no”. In the event the Iraqi Islamic Party changed its mind after concessions were made allowing the constitution to be amended by the National Assembly next year. It joined the “yes” campaign. The three-way split among the Sunni means that they cannot agree on a strategy as the Kurds and Shia consolidate their power. Had they staged a united campaign they could probably have won enough votes in three provinces to veto the constitution.

The Shia vote was down, but few voted “no”. According to Safaa al-Mousawi, head of the election commission office in Karbala, about 440,000 people–60 per cent–turned out to vote, with just under 95 per cent voting for the constitution. Haitham al-Husseini, an official of the leading Shia party (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), there was a 90 per cent “yes” vote in Basra and Najaf. However, the turnout in the south was described as “moderate to low”, between 33 and 66 per cent, with the figures for Qadissiyah just over 30 per cent.

In January’s elections, turnout averaged 80 per cent in the south.

In Basra, Shias expressed satisfaction at the likely result. Khalid Hussein,22, a student, said: “I voted ‘yes’, but I have doubts. I do not think the religious elements should have too much influence in our politics, but the constitution does not help in that regard. We must also be careful to make sure the Sunnis remain part of our society, otherwise terrorism will only get worse.”

Haidar Rahim Alwan, a carpenter, said: “If the Sunnis do not like it, that is their problem. They have ruled badly over us from Baghdad, and it is now our turn to form the government.”

Saad al-Raadi, who is Sunni, said: “I voted ‘no’, but because of the majority the Shias and Kurds have we did not have a chance. Now we must work after the election [in December] to try and make sure the unfair matters in the constitution are rejected.”

After a brief hiatus, the guerrilla war resumed yesterday, pushing US military fatalities near to the 2,000 mark. A roadside bomb in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, destroyed a Bradley fighting vehicle and killed five soldiers, bringing the total dead to 1,975.

Iran accused Britain yesterday of having a role in two bomb blasts which killed five people in Khuzestan province bordering Iraq. The Interior Minister, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, said he believed the explosions at a shopping centre in Ahvaz were “a continuation of previous explosions that were guided from abroad. Regarding the presence of British forces alongside Iranian borders, there are some concerns about their role in the Ahvaz blasts.”

Iran blamed four bombings in the summer which killed another eight people in Ahvaz on Iranian Arab extremists with ties to foreign governments.

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