Iraq's little-read charter evokes strong views

Just days before Iraq's constitutional referendum on Saturday few Iraqis have read the country's new draft charter or even know what's in the document.

But ask the average Shiite what they think of Iraq's proposed constitution and it will be praised to the heavens. Ask a Sunni, and he or she says that it will lead to the breakup of Iraq, and a deepening of its civil war.

Many simply say they're voting based on what leaders of their communities say, and when they speak of the document's weaknesses or advantages, they focus on group, rather than national interests.

"Of course I'm voting no,'' says Abu Mustafa, a Sunni security guard in Baghdad who declined to give his full name. "The Muslim Scholars Association [a leading group of Sunni preachers] have told us it's terrible for Iraq."

Even though few people have seen the document, it's expected to pass easily. The demographic weight of Iraq's Shiite majority and Kurdish minority, who also support the constitution, is likely to swamp Sunni Arab discontent.

But the referendum could be defeated if a simple majority of Iraqis, or two-thirds of the voters in any three provinces, vote no. But while Sunnis, who make up about 15 to 20 percent of the national population, are probably a majority in at least three provinces, in two of the three there are substantial Kurdish and Shiite minorities.

Most of Iraq's people rely on government-subsidized food rations, and the government had promised to distribute a copy of the charter to every Iraqi family this week through its ration shops. But two Baghdad ration shops visited Tuesday said that only 40 copies had been delivered for the 330 families they do business with.

Even when the constitution is read, many Iraqis say its meaning isn't clear.

"I don't really get the details, but the situation will definitely become better,'' says Hassan Ghazal who runs a government ration shop in Baghdad. "The Sunnis don't like it, so if it passes it will weaken them and put them into a corner. And that should make things more peaceful."

In more violence-prone areas like Sunni-dominated Anbar Province in western Iraq, where US military operations are ongoing, even fewer Iraqis have seen constitutional drafts.

The lack of basic knowledge about the constitution is serving to feed mistrust and conspiracy theories, particularly among the Sunni community from which Iraq's insurgency draws most of its fighters.

"I haven't even been able to read the constitution yet - the government is deliberately keeping it away from us to trick us,'' says Abu Mustafa. "But I don't have to read it to know how bad it is. It's designed to break up the country. Even if the voters reject it, the Iranians and the Americans, who have the most to gain from this constitution, will rig the results."

Iraq's charter was drafted by the country's Shiite-dominated National Assembly, which was elected in January. The document itself was the product of compromises worked out between Shiites and the strong minority Kurdish bloc - with Kurds getting promises of greater autonomy in exchange for their acquiescence to strong language favoring Islam in the text. Sunni leaders say their input to the process was generally ignored.

The document itself is vague enough that its real value will be measurable only when it's put into practice. While it promises "federalism," the amount of autonomy that Iraqi regions will achieve for themselves is not yet entirely clear.

Amid all the confusion, Iraqi voters are defaulting to the sources they trust most: Tribal leaders and religious figures on either side of the Shiite-Sunni divide.

"I refuse the whole idea of the constitution ... I believe the hands that wrote the constitution are not Iraqi," says Yacoub Abu Harith, a Sunni working in an appliance store in Baghdad with a prominent forehead Zebib, a callous left from frequent prostrations in prayer. Like Abu Mustafa, he says he'll vote based on the Muslim scholars' wishes.

Shiites just as frequently say they're voting yes because the leading Shiite scholars want them to, even though Iraq's most popular Shiite figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has not indicated how he wants people to vote. That hasn't stopped the Dawa Party from plastering some Baghdad neighborhoods with posters telling Shiites that the Marjaiyah, the leading Shiite religious scholars, expect Shiites to vote yes.

Two Shiite deliverymen, Karar Jawad and Anwar Hassan, represent an almost naive optimism in their enthusiasm for the constitution. They haven't seen a copy of it yet, but based on what friends tell them, they plan to vote yes. "The electricity and water supply will be better," says Hassan, between lugging boxes of furniture from a Baghdad furniture store.

Jawad agrees and says once the constitution is passed, it will end the years of violence here and create jobs. "The country will settle down and the Americans will leave sooner."

Although Monday talks on the charter - presented as "finished" over a month ago - were held among top politicians at the Baghdad home of President Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Kurdish faction in parliament, it doesn't appear possible to assuage Sunni concerns at this late date.

"Efforts are continuing to try and bridge differences over some clauses,'' government spokesman Laith Kuba told reporters Tuesday. Mr. Kuba said if changes are made before Saturday's referendum, the government would rely on the local press to get the information into the hands of the country's 15 million voters.

When Iraq's current political road map was set down by the US, laid out in the current Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), a sort of interim constitution, it promised a long period of public consultations designed to build consensus for the document. That never happened, and now many Iraqis - even some Shiites - worry that passage of the document could do more harm than good.

"We all know that Sunnis don't like it, and that it's probably going to pass, so that's going to push us farther apart,'' says Abdullah Mohammed, a Shiite who recently lost his job in a Baghdad office. "I wish this process was given more time. Now I fear we're rushing to something that will breed more resentment, more violence."

Constitution's key elements

• Iraq is a federal, parliamentary democracy.

• Elections will be held every four years.

• The leader of the parliamentary majority will serve as prime minister.

• Islam is the state religion. Religious freedom is guaranteed. Islam is a main source of all legislation. No law can contradict fixed principles of Islam or democracy or rights granted elsewhere in the constitution.

• Iraqis are equal before the law, and have rights to freedom of expression, the press, and assembly.

• Men and women have equal political rights.

• The Baath Party is banned.

• The judicial system will be transparent. All forms of torture and inhumane treatment are forbidden.

• Arabic, Kurdish are the official languages.

• Iraq's oil and gas reserves are declared "the property of all Iraqi people."

• Oil revenues are to be shared equitably by regions. Areas neglected under Saddam Hussein will have preferential treatment for a specified period.

• Provincial administrations will have a strong level of autonomy, including the right to form regional governments that may set up their own security structures.

Source: Reuters

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