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With weeks to go before Iraq's referendum on a constitution, Iraqi politicians are preparing for a political showdown. Washington had hoped the vote would showcase Iraqi unity. Instead, deep disagreements have hardened sectarian divisions and distrust. The document was pushed through by Shiites and Kurds over the objection of Sunnis, and there is still no official agreement on the wording. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Baghdad.
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DEBORAH AMOS reporting:
In the coffee shop of a heavily guarded hotel in Baghdad, Nicholas Haysom is weary with frustration. Haysom, the United Nations official in charge of constitutional affairs in Iraq, who assisted four other countries in the constitutional process, is still waiting for Iraq's official draft.
Mr. NICHOLAS HAYSOM (United Nations): That draft is being subject to revision by all the leading players, and the Iraqis seem to want to go with that process.
AMOS: Haysom's UN team is in charge of printing and distributing 4.5 million copies of the constitution, a task that will take at least two weeks, which means voters will have little time to study and discuss the text before the October 15th referendum.
Mr. HAYSOM: So the question is: How long should you have that text available before you vote, so that there can be a public engagement on it and a public debate?
AMOS: The Iraqi public has already shown interest.
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AMOS: In this Iraqi government office, hundreds of cardboard boxes contain a half-million e-mails and letters from Iraqis who wanted their say. Director Adnan Mohammen Hassen(ph) says some are full legal briefs; others, from Iraqis who could not read nor write.
Mr. ADNAN MOHAMMEN HASSEN (Director): (Through Translator) Sometimes simple people can't write a brief sentence, so they illustrate.
AMOS: The pictures and letters were delivered to Iraq's National Assembly, although it's not clear if anyone read them. Iraq's Constitution was negotiated on a fast track, sometimes behind closed doors, among political elites. President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, called those against the constitution `narrow-minded Arab nationalists who don't understand the spirit of the new era.'
Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: But opposition is building. The Iraq Islamic Party, a Sunni political group, denounced the document in a news conference and pledged to campaign against it. Voter registration in some Sunni areas has topped 85 percent. Sunni leaders fear provisions on federalism, with a weak central government and powers in separate regions, will tear the country apart. Even Western analysts say Iraq's Constitution describes an extremely weak central government. Nathan Brown with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace writes, `The list of responsibilities for the central government is remarkably short--only foreign affairs and defense.'
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Unidentified Man #2: Hi.
Unidentified Man #3: Hello.
Unidentified Man #2: ...(Unintelligible).
AMOS: Ahmed Chalabi, deputy prime minister and architect of the draft, says a strong central government belongs to Iraq's past because it has failed.
Mr. AHMED CHALABI (Deputy Prime Minister, Iraq): Look at the results of a strong central government. We have been at war for 23 years under Saddam.
Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Man #5: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: In Kirkuk, a city north of Baghdad, voter registration was heavy. Kirkuk is rich in oil but steeped in violence, where residents there--Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen--make competing claims on the city, which often lead to gunfire. Iraqis have vastly different visions for the new Iraq, which will determine their vote. As he registered for the referendum, Adnan al-Qutub(ph) would not share his opinions on the constitution, just his fears for after the vote.
Mr. ADNAN AL-QUTUB: (Through Translator) But, honestly, I am worried about both cases, if it is passed or if it had been rejected. And God help us.
AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News, Baghdad.
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