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All Eyes on the Sunni

Prospects of Sunni backing for the constitution are not promising, despite last-ditch efforts to change their minds.
By Duraed Salman

The chaotic negotiations over the draft constitution seem to have finally come to an end for Iraqi lawmakers, who managed to bring a major Sunni Arab party on board at the last minute.

What remains to be seen in Iraq’s roller-coaster politics is how many other Sunni Arab parties and how many voters will support the proposed constitution in the October 15 referendum.

"We want to finish this stage and move to the next rather than return to a transitional government that extends presence of the occupier," said Nasir al-Ani, member of the Iraqi Islamic Party.

The party appeared to be the only major Sunni Arab political faction to support the recent changes in the constitution. Iraqi lawmakers, concerned that Sunni Arabs would boycott the referendum or vote against the constitution en masse, decided to make some last minute changes to the document.

The most significant enables legislators to once again amend the constitution if Iraqis decide to approve it at the polls, giving Sunni Arab lawmakers some breathing room for further negotiations. Voters would decide on the amendments in a separate referendum.

A week ago, 21 Sunni Arab political parties, associations and groups rejected the constitution at a meeting at the Association of Muslim Scholars’ office in Baghdad. One of the major concerns was that Kurdish and Shia regions would have too much autonomy under a federalist system that Sunni Arabs argued threatened to fragment Iraq.

Most, including the influential Association of Muslim Scholars and the National Dialogue Council, continue to oppose the document despite slight changes that, among other things, emphasise a unified Iraq. They expressed reservations over the Iraqi Islamic Party’s deal with Shia and Kurdish lawmakers, insisting that it was an individual agreement and that not all Sunni Arab groups needed to support it.

Salih Mutlak, the head of the National Dialogue Council, said the council did not want to reject the draft constitution but did not find it acceptable in its current form. He said if the Kurds compromised on the issue of federalism, his group could move forward and resolve remaining points of conflict. Otherwise, he said, the council would encourage its supporters to go to the polls to vote against the constitution.

It is unclear whether Sunni Arabs will vote in large numbers against the constitution or if they will for the most part stay away from the polls. If two-thirds of voters in three of Iraq’s 18 provinces reject the constitution, lawmakers must draft an entirely new document.

One lawmaker, Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Nemi, argued that it was necessary for voters to participate in the referendum because the boycott of many Sunni Arabs during the parliamentary elections in January hurt Iraq politically.

"We pay the price in the National Assembly because of the small number of the Sunni Arabs," he said.

Mahmood Osman, a member of the Iraqi National Assembly on the Kurdistan Alliance List, urged the alliance and the Shia United Iraqi List to gain the support of Sunni Arab leaders in order to "solve the problems of the poor, who cannot bear any more hardships".

This will be hard to achieve given the months of fiery negotiations over the constitution and threats of boycotts by Sunni Arab leaders.

"This assembly is illegitimate,” said Mushan al-Juburi, a Sunni lawmaker. “It should have been dissolved when the constitution draft was not submitted on time."

A final draft of the constitution was supposed to have been presented by August 15. Lawmakers did not decide on a final version until late September, and continued to amend it just days before the referendum.

Duraed Salman is an IWPR trainee journalist in Baghdad.

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