Pending Vote on Constitution Divides Iraq An Oct. 15 referendum is scheduled on a constitution for Iraq. Many Sunni Muslims fear that the federalist charter will deprive them of benefits of the nation's oil reserves and a chance at public-sector jobs.
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Pending Vote on Constitution Divides Iraq

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Pending Vote on Constitution Divides Iraq

Pending Vote on Constitution Divides Iraq

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Next Saturday Iraqis will vote yes or no on the draft constitution. If approved, it would set the scene for full independence from the American-led occupation. But the document is highly controversial. Many of Iraq's Sunni Muslims are strongly opposed to the constitution that was drafted mainly by the country's majority Shiite Muslims and ethnic Kurds. NPR's Anne Garrels joins us from Baghdad.

Annie, thanks for being with us.

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

Delighted to be here.

SIMON: And please help us understand, if you could. Summarize the complaints of many Sunni Arabs.

GARRELS: Well, basically they feel they're being unfairly punished for the past and that they're going to be locked out of the future. The constitution provides for a new kind of federalism for Iraq, giving significant local powers to the Kurdish north and the Shiites in the oil-rich south, and Sunnis fear this will mean they'll be deprived of benefits of the country's huge oil reserves. And they also fear that language outlawing Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated Baath Party could be used to block them from public-sector jobs. And these fears have been fueled by recent arbitrary moves by the de-Baathification committee.

SIMON: Any chance that Sunnis in a large number are going to boycott the election--or boycott the vote, the referendum, on the constitution?

GARRELS: On the contrary. Many Sunnis realize they blew it by boycotting the January elections, and they want to have their voices heard this time. And it looks like they're going to vote in large numbers, hoping to defeat it. Now some believe they've got the necessary two-thirds in three of Iraq's 18 provinces required to reject the constitution, and there's a big danger that if they fail to defeat it there will be accusations of corruption and a backlash. And it's not just Sunnis, actually, who object to the constitution. There are plenty of secular Iraqis, including women and human rights groups, who argue it's full of loopholes and that extremists in the Shiite majority are going to use this to their advantage. So far from unifying the country, this constitution could well inflame divisions.

SIMON: To what degree has the debate been joined? To what degree do Iraqis seem to be taking this into their own lives and looking at this as a moment to come out and express themselves?

GARRELS: It's been pretty confused. In many ways, people are responding to their leadership, whether, you know, from the mosques, whatever. One organization funded by the UN has not held the hundreds of conferences it claims. It appears they've been merely pocketing the money. The final draft was repeatedly delayed, and printed copies only appeared a couple of days ago. Some shopkeepers have refused to allow booklets in--because they fear insurgent retaliation. And likewise, some Iraqis are afraid to pick up the copies. Even Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman has said that the whole thing has been rushed too fast. He claims this was because the US wanted to get a constitution to show progress back at home.

SIMON: What happens if it doesn't pass, Annie?

GARRELS: Well, if it doesn't pass, you go back to square one, you start all over again, and you end up with an interim government. If it does pass, you will have a permanent government, and some will vote for the constitution merely to get a permanent government so that plans can be put in place for Iraq's future.

(Soundbite of ringing)

SIMON: NPR's Anne Garrels in Baghdad. Sounds like you have to go and pick up another call, so thanks for being with us.

GARRELS: No, that's the electricity that just went.

SIMON: Oh, all right. Well, thanks. Take care, Annie.

GARRELS: Thank you.

SIMON: NPR's Anne Garrels, speaking with us from Baghdad.

And the time here on WEEKEND EDITION is 18 minutes past the hour.

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