Violence Plagues Iraq, Despite Constitution Breakthrough

Last-minute amendments to Iraq's draft constitution, made to assuage Sunni Arab-concerns, have split what had been solid opposition to the document. Still, sectarian violence continues to rip away at the country — especially north of Baghdad in Samarra.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Iraqis vote tomorrow on a draft constitution in what US officials hope will be a step toward national reconciliation. Three major groups have watched each other suspiciously: Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and Kurds. Some last-minute amendments brought some Sunni Arabs on board, but influential Sunni groups have called the amendments a trick. And as we're about to hear, sectarian violence continues to rip away at the country. NPR's Anne Garrels has this report.

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

Samir Abdul Rahim Mohammed(ph) won't vote tomorrow on the referendum. He can't, because he recently fled his hometown of Samarra, north of Baghdad, where he's registered. Anyway, he has more pressing problems. Sunni insurgents who have long fought US-led forces in Samarra are now terrorizing the tiny Shiite minority there.

Mr. SAMIR ABDUL RAHIM MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Child: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Child: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: Samir's wife and three children are now crammed into a rented room in a poor Baghdad neighborhood. They left everything behind.

Mr. MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) What we are spending now is all we have. The government is not helping at all.

GARRELS: And any hopes that they might return home soon disappeared last week when armed men entered a Samarra college, dragged out a teacher and gunned down one of the last remaining Shiites.

Shiites started fleeing about nine months ago when they became the targets of threats, kidnappings and killings.

Mr. MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) (Unintelligible) was killed because he was a Shiite. A woman was killed in front of her children. killed.

GARRELS: At least 12 Shiites have now been murdered. About 200 families are said to have left. Samir, who work for a pharmaceutical company, stayed on longer than most but three weeks ago his wife, Chunan(ph), could no longer take it.

Ms. CHUNAN MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) We were left alone. We can't resist on our own. I feared for the life of my husband and my children.

GARRELS: Her Sunni friends were powerless to protect them.

Ms. MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) Most of our friends are afraid. Most of them are poor. Whoever interferes will also be killed.

GARRELS: Samir says the Shiite community appealed for help from Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shiite religious figure in Iraq.

Mr. MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) He said that we ought to be silent until this is over.

GARRELS: But when, they ask, will it be over? They're running out of money and patience. One of their local religious leaders, Sheikh Hadi Abdul Rahim al-Garawi(ph), fled after he escaped a kidnap attempt and threats. He's a student of Sistani's. And his father was Sistani's representative in Samarra until he also left. They're obliged to follow Sistani's orders without question, but Sheikh Hadi Abdul Rahim too is running out of patience.

Sheikh HADI ABDUL RAHIM AL-GARAWI: (Through Translator) We keep meeting and meeting, getting nothing. These meetings are useless. No one does anything. The people need help.

GARRELS: In his desperation, he's threatening to turn to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his armed militia.

Sheikh AL-GARAWI: (Through Translator) I was never a member of the Sadr line, but I really respect them because they are decisive. The people who have had to leave Samarra feel more and more that patience is the same as cowardice. I never wanted to reach this stage but I cannot tolerate the situation much longer. Why shouldn't I fight? Let it be civil war.

GARRELS: As he nervously fingers his amber beads, the sheikh throws out desperate ideas: to find Sunnis from Samarra who are now in Baghdad and evict them from their houses just as he has been evicted, to send gunmen into Samarra. Trying to pin him down on just who is attacking the Shiites is difficult. Some local Sunni Arabs, some outsiders, some out of conviction, some for money and some, he says, within the local security forces.

Sheikh AL-GARAWI: (Through Translator) They wear uniforms during the day but then come and get us at night.

GARRELS: He doesn't feel safe even in Baghdad. He removes his distinctive turban, which marks him as a Shiite cleric, whenever he goes outside. He says it's humiliating to take off this sign of his devotion. And while one minute talking about a constitution that would serve all, he then makes it clear he wants this constitution to right old wrongs, to give the Shiites the power they deserve. But for now, he's looking for more immediate revenge.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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