Iraq's Sunnis Threaten to Boycott Oct. 15 Vote

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Alex Chadwick speaks with New York Times reporter Robert Worth about the lead-up to the national referendum on Iraq's new constitution. Shiite and Kurdish leaders have agreed on a new interpretation of voting rules that would greatly favor approval of the draft constitution, but some Sunni leaders have threatened to boycott the October 15 vote.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

In Iraq today, a suicide car bomber struck at a checkpoint inside the walls of Baghdad's high-security Green Zone. The blast killed two Iraqi soldiers and a civilian. This comes in the run-up to the October 15th national referendum on a new Iraqi constitution. The drive toward a vote has not been without its detours, the latest of which occurred Sunday when Shiite and Kurdish leaders approved a change in election rules that all but guarantees adoption of the new constitution. Robert Worth is Baghdad correspondent for The New York Times. He joins us by cell phone.

Robert, tell us about this change. It's caused a lot of angst among the Sunnis, hasn't it?

Mr. ROBERT WORTH (The New York Times): Yes, it has. Sunnis were already largely opposed to the constitution and some of them felt that the rules had already been fixed against them. In order to defeat the constitution, two-thirds of the voters and at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces have to vote against it. Now people had assumed that that meant two-thirds of the actual ballots cast, but on Sunday what you had was the Shiite and Kurdish legislators clarifying that law, saying that it's actually two-thirds of registered voters. And this change makes it almost impossible because even with a turnout much higher than we had in last January's elections, virtually everybody in those three provinces would have to vote against the constitution. And that just seems unlikely.

CHADWICK: When you say two-thirds of the registered voters, wouldn't the people who were voting in the referendum already have to be registered voters?

Mr. WORTH: Yes, but you're registered more or less automatically according to the food ration cards that they have here. So registered voters is pretty much everybody of voting age. The number of people who will actually cast ballots, given that there's continuing violence here and it's expected to get much worse, is bound to be much lower than that. And requiring two-thirds of the registered voters to vote no on this Constitution really raises the bar very high.

CHADWICK: So it's not actually two-thirds of the people voting, it's two-thirds of the people who theoretically could vote.

Mr. WORTH: Exactly, which translates into a much higher percentage of those who actually do vote.

CHADWICK: Why did the Shiites and Kurds do this? Were they afraid that they might lose on this referendum otherwise?

Mr. WORTH: Well, one imagines that's the reason, yes. One thing they have said is that they don't want this referendum to be decided by a small and sort of undemocratically slim number of people in those provinces, which are likely to be the provinces which have large Sunni populations which also happen to be the ones where there's a great deal of violence. Now what they're saying is, with all of this violence, this would mean that, as far as the Shiites and the Kurds were concerned, the constitution could be voted down by a small number of people, even though millions and millions of people elsewhere in the country were voting in favor of it. And they thought that was unfair.

CHADWICK: The UN has already come out and said that the Shiites and Kurds are trying to rejigger things at the last moment and this basically isn't fair and they want Iraq to rethink this change.

Mr. WORTH: Yeah, that's their understanding is that what's happening today--the National Assembly is in fact, as far as we know, not even talking about this today. It's really happening behind closed doors; that UN officials and American officials and the Shiite and Kurdish leadership are trying to find a way to sort this out. And as far as we can tell, the Americans and the UN would like to move back to the earlier understanding that it should be votes cast and not registered voters.

CHADWICK: Robert Worth, Baghdad correspondent for The New York Times. We'll see what happens with this story. Robert, thank you.

Mr. WORTH: OK. Thank you.

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