Iraq's Sunnis Weigh Referendum Boycott

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A growing number of Sunni political and insurgent groups are threatening to boycott the referendum on Iraq's constitution, a step that would effectively derail the political process and undermine any prospect of the Oct. 15 vote helping to end the insurgency. Many Sunni groups say the vote would be meaningless, since their community is being denied a fair chance to vote down the draft constitution — and they believed their suspicions were confirmed by Sunday's vote in the Shiite-led Iraqi parliament to rewrite the rules in a way that effectively made it impossible for Sunnis to defeat the constitution in the referendum. That change was hastily retracted, Monday, in the face of strong international pressure. But Sunni suspicions persist.

"It's an important first step that (the Shiite parties) have withdrawn the ruling, but this entire episode has convinced many of us that they will try anything to win the referendum," Saleh Mutlaq, one of the Sunni leaders who have been negotiating with the government over the constitution, told TIME. The transitional constitution drawn up by the U.S. holds that the new charter can be defeated if it is rejected by two thirds of voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces. That was always going to be a tall order for the Sunnis, because although they make up the majority in four provinces, it is far from certain that they have the numbers required to vote down the constitution. Sunday's move would have required that the veto comprise two-thirds of registered voters — not two-thirds of those who actually vote — voting "no" in three provinces.

Mutlaq's initial response to the change was to declare that boycotting the poll was an option. He now says that may be less likely, but that Sunni's remain suspicious and will closely watch the government's next moves. Other Sunni voices are more forceful in advocating a boycott. A senior commander of Jaish Mohammed ("Army of Mohammed") has told TIME that leaders of several insurgent groups have been discussing "a total shutdown of three provinces for 10 days, before and after Oct 15" that would close stores and government offices. The provinces are Anbar, Salahuddin and Nineveh, all with Sunni majorities.

"We know that the government will do anything to ensure a 'Yes' vote," said the commander, who did not give his name. "So the only way the Sunnis can make their point is to stay out of the process altogether. That would make the referendum a joke for the whole world."

Jaish Mohammed is one of several insurgent groups made up of former soldiers and Ba'ath Party officials. Al-Qaeda's Iraqi arm, led by terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has already denounced the referendum; in a new statement posted on the internet, the group said the vote was bound to be fixed by the U.S.

Sunni Arabs make up barely a fifth of Iraq's population but were the dominant political class until the fall of Saddam Hussein. The majority of Sunnis sat out the Jan 30 general election, but leaders like Mutlaq were persuaded in the summer to join a committee to draft the constitution. The U.S. believes that drawing the Sunnis into the political process is the key condition for defeating the insurgency. But even those Sunnis that entered the process have rejected the draft charter, citing several controversial clauses. Their main bone of contention is federalism: while Shiite and Kurdish parties favor strong regional governments with a high degree of autonomy, Sunnis fear this would lead inevitably to the dismemberment of Iraq.