Sunnis Rush to Meet Voter Registration Deadline

Sunni Muslims, who largely boycotted January's parliamentary elections, are registering in large numbers for an Oct. 15 vote on the draft consitution. Most are expected to vote against it.

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In Baghdad today, hundreds of Shiite pilgrims were killed when the rails of a bridge they were passing over collapsed. Hundreds of thousands of Shiites had been attending a religious festival north of the city when rumors circulated of a suicide bomber that led to a stampede across the bridge.

The incident comes amid a deep Sunni-Shiite divide over Iraq's draft constitution. Sunni leaders have called for a rejection of the constitution in a referendum in October. NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

(Soundbite of crowd)

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

Iraqis are in a rush to register for the October vote. At this center in central Baghdad, the manager says she's been swamped.

Unidentified Woman: (Through Translator) Nowadays 500 people, 600, 700. Today, there were too many people came.

AMOS: The dispute over the constitution has raised strong passions. No more so than in the Sunni neighborhood of Gazilia(ph). Sunni leaders have urged voters to defeat a document they say will lead to the breakup of Iraq. In Gazilia, religious leaders moved voter registration to a mosque because they said the official center was on a dangerous street where insurgents often battle US soldiers. Coddam Hussam(ph) is a former military officer.

Mr. CODDAM HUSSAM (Former Military Officer): (Through Translator) I came to be sure that my name is here. It's a chance for all Iraqis to vote. I am not afraid. Why should I? It's a right.

AMOS: Sunnis mostly boycotted the national elections in January, but now leaders from two main Sunni political groups have urged registration. Muhammad Esam(ph) is an official with the elections commission.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Mr. MUHAMMAD ESAM (Official, Elections Commission): (Through Translator) The main difficulty is that the rush has started lately.

AMOS: The deadline to sign up is now 24 hours away. Esam says many potential voters had trouble finding the registration center.

Mr. ESAM: (Through Translator) Now they know about it, and so many are coming now and we have no time to catch up with it.

AMOS: The imam of this mosque, Sheik Hassan el-Rowi(ph), welcomes everyone, but worries that with these crowds they won't make the deadline. El-Rowi wants the election commission to extend the registration.

Sheik HASSAN EL-ROWI: (Through Translator) We can see the rush here. We cannot finish it today and more shall come. Every minute we are calling them requesting an extension because the people are many.

AMOS: The mosque doors are plastered with graphic pictures, a campaign strategy already under way. The photographs show American soldiers arresting a Sunni cleric. The man is in his underwear, an image meant to stoke Sunni anger at dishonor by US troops. The caption says: `We must vote to avenge their rights.' Another photo shows dead men riddled with bullets. A few days ago, 36 Sunni men were displayed before burial in another Gazilia mosque. They had been found in a river bed after being arrested by men wearing police uniforms. In a news conference, a Sunni leader charged the Shiite-dominated government was responsible for those deaths. He demanded an investigation. Adnan al-Dulaimi condemned the government and the draft constitution.

Mr. ADNAN AL-DULAIMI: (Through Translator) Therefore, we reject this draft and will work, God help us, to educate all Iraqis in order to bring down this draft and the referendum that's going to take place on the 15th of October.

AMOS: As Dulaimi spoke, the American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, stood by his side. The ambassador suggested there may be further adjustments to the draft constitution to address some Sunni concerns, but acknowledged Dulaimi and other Sunni leaders were now working for its defeat.

Ambassador ZALMAY KHALILZAD (United States): We had a lively discussion and I respect his commitment to work in the political process, through the political process, and that's important.

AMOS: There are indications that Kurdish and Shiite leaders are considering some minor adjustments to the wording of the final constitution to head off what is likely to be a bitter and divisive political battle. Sunni leaders say they are mapping their strategy, reaching outside the Sunni community to appeal to other Iraqi groups to join the rejection camp. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Baghdad.

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