Why Iraq's Sunnis fear constitution

Parliament is likely to approve the constitution by Thursday's deadline, despite Sunni objections.

With the clock ticking down on Iraq's constitutional negotiations, the question everyone wants answered is what, if anything, can be done to satisfy Sunni Arab demands?

Probably not much, but that's unlikely to stop Iraq's parliament from approving the constitution by Thursday's deadline, said Humam Bakr Hamoudi, a Shiite politician and chairman of the constitutional drafting committee.

Sunnis oppose changing Iraq from a strong central state to a loose federal one. But satisfying the Sunnis, a religious minority in Iraq, on this would anger ethnic Kurds and Shiite Arabs who have written the draft.

Sunnis worry that federalism will only strengthen the hands of the Shiites in the south and the Kurds in the north, while denying them a share of Iraq's oil revenue, since the two major oil centers are in the north and the south. Sunnis are clustered in the center of Iraq.

Sunni fears

But at root of the Sunni rejection of the constitutional process is fear itself. The psyche of this community, from which Saddam Hussein's most fervent supporters were drawn and who enjoyed privileged positions until his regime was toppled, has been badly damaged in the past few years.

Many fears about the new Iraq are expressed throughout Baghdad's Sunni neighborhoods. They fear that Iraq's new masters will punish them for supporting Mr. Hussein's regime; they fear they don't have leaders or social cohesion; and they fear their former status will never be regained.

It's this fear and doubt that feeds their distrust of Iraq's other communities and their desire to see the writing of the constitution delayed.

"We are all afraid. There are reasons for revenge. Anyone can call the Interior Ministry and get someone killed" by calling someone a terrorist, says Souda Mustafa Ali, a Sunni.

Ms. Ali was referring to a ministry that runs the police and is controlled by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a Shiite political party that has its own militia that has been increasingly accused by Sunnis of assassinating members of their community.

Fears about Iran's influence in the government are also pervasive and have sent a flurry of rumors around Sunni communities that are repeated with remarkable sameness and accepted as fact.

"The interior ministry threw out all the Sunnis and won't accept any more. Most of the assassinations these days are done by Badr,'' says Abu Issam, referring to SCIRI's militia, which was trained and supported by Iran in the 1980s and resurfaced here from their exile after the fall of Saddam.

"We feel like we don't exist or are put aside," says one Sunni living in west Baghdad who asked that her name not be used for fear of attack. Her husband was a high ranking official in Hussein's security forces.

"I feel like the Americans after the occupation they supported only the Shiites and they ignore us on purpose. We are part of the Iraqi people."

While there's no reason that Sunni doubts couldn't be eased in the fullness of time, during which the community in general isn't subject to reprisals or abuse, in the draft of the current constitution they see many worrying signs. Federalism is just one of them.

The current draft constitution on the table specifically outlaws Hussein's old Baath party, which many Sunnis interpret as an effort to target them as a community.

Shiites have also been pushing for a strong role for their clerics in advising Iraq's lawmakers. The current draft contains language banning any law "that violates the sharia," and opens the door to Shiite religious leaders helping to set the law of the land.

Many Sunnis say they feel the ruling Shiite political parties are simply fronts for Iranian interests. They fear that the party militias, and even the government police and army, single Sunnis out for arrests or worse as revenge for the years that Hussein's Sunni-dominated government persecuted Shiites.

Iraq's next elections

Since January's elections, Iraqi politics has been divided sharply along religious and ethnic lines. But average Sunnis are resounding in their call for unity and to wipe out labels like Sunni, Shiite, or Kurd.

"We don't differentiate between Sunni and Shiite," says Khalid Hamid, a Sunni. The politicians "talk about unity of all Iraq but they stimulate the sectarian divisions." Sunnis across the board say they would vote against any constitution that includes federalism or specific language about the Baath.

The constitution now being drafted is scheduled to go to a national referendum on Oct. 15. If two-thirds of the people in any three provinces vote against it, the document will be dissolved and new elections will be held to form a national assembly and draft a new constitution.

But all the concerns now swirling around the Sunni community have made many determined to turn out in force in the next national elections scheduled for December.

"Sunnis made a mistake by not participating in the elections," says Mustafa Ali Kareem al-Bayati, a Sunni living in north- eastern Baghdad.

He says there are banners in his neighborhood encouraging people to vote and he says he will be sure to. "Our destiny will be decided in these days."

Indeed, what most Sunnis want now is for the constitutional process to stop, and for new elections to be held, which they expect would yield them more influence. "We want the constitution to include all Iraqis. If this fails it's a good thing. It will give the Sunnis another chance," says Mustafa Ali Kareem, a Sunni.

The people's voice

The unanimity of average Sunni opinion is startling but that unity in thinking has not produced a leader that Sunnis say they can stand behind. Groups like the Iraqi Islamic Party or individual Sunni politicians who are speaking as Sunni representatives in constitution talks find little popular support.

Most average Sunnis say all they want from a leader is equal treatment and, when pressed, many say former prime minister Iyad Allawi - a secular Shiite but a former member of the Baath party - is the politician closest to their views.

"We don't look for a leader to be a Sunni to lead us. We want someone like Iyad Allawi. Their ethnicity is not important. [We want someone] who fulfills the dreams of Iraqis, it doesn't matter who he is. Someone to take care of security and electricity," says Yasser Kaha Ibrahim, a Sunni administrative worker.

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