Baghdad (UPI) Oct 15, 2005
Don't believe anyone who says they can predict either the outcome or the ramifications of Saturday's referendum on the new constitution for Iraq. The permutations are too complex to foresee, each pointing down twisting paths toward eventual stability or an outright civil war.
Most eyes Saturday will be on the turn-out and voting patterns of Iraq's roughly 30 percent Sunni population. Clustered primarily in four provinces in central Iraq, minority Sunnis held power under Saddam Hussein for the last 30 years. Traditionally the Sunnis have long held disproportionate influence in Iraq because of their grip on the country's industry and their geographic situation.
The first king of Iraq -- installed by the British in 1920 -- was Sunni as well.
Sunnis by and large did not vote in January's election for a transitional government. Anecdotal evidence -- and some polling data -- suggests they regret it.
Provincial councils in the Sunni provinces reported brisk voter registration throughout the summer. In war-ravaged, rebellious Fallujah in August, for instance, two separate registration sites reported a total of 1,500 new voters in a single day. Just 7,000 people voted in all of Anbar province in January, according to a State Department official. Forty percent of those voters were in Fallujah.
A poll taken of Arab Sunnis in major towns across Iraq by the U.S. State Department in June showed large numbers said the boycott, on reflection, was a bad idea -- 83 and 75 percent in two upscale Baghdad neighborhoods, 61 percent in Baqubah, and 57 percent in Tikrit.
Hit and Ramadi -- two towns with high levels of insurgent activity -- were the only places polled not to show a majority regretting the boycott.
A nationwide poll taken in September across Iraq showed no fewer than 75 percent of all Iraqis believe it important both to register and vote in this election.
Sunni's didn't vote in January for myriad reasons. Some avoided the polls to protest what they see as the puppet status of their country's government and its occupied status. Some were threatened not to show up by insurgents who promised great violence as they sought to undermine the legitimacy of the vote. Still others simply didn't know about it, or couldn't be bothered -- a laziness not unknown in the United States.
Assuming the U.S. government's predictions of high turnout is correct, there are three possible outcomes.
The Sunnis, if voting in a block, could garner enough votes to reject the constitution.
To reject the constitution, three of the four majority Sunni provinces would have to have two-thirds of the registered voters casting "no" votes. They have serious concerns about the document's ability to maintain Iraq as a single country -- necessary if the Sunnis are to share in Iraq's oil wealth; about its treatment of former Ba'ath party members; and about the role of Islam in the government, particularly whether that version of Islam will favor Shi'ite or Sunni interpretations.
Several U.S. military and Iraqi government leaders told United Press International over the last two months a clean rejection might be the best possible outcome, as it would show Sunnis they could effect political change without violence. Sunnis comprise the vast majority of insurgent fighters across Iraq.
No matter what the outcome of the referendum, there will be a national vote for a new government in December. If the constitution does not pass, it will be for a new transitional assembly, and subsequently a new constitutional committee -- a panel Sunnis feel they were largely shut out of this year in favor of the Shi'ites and Kurds who turned out for January's election in large numbers. The entire process would begin again.
If the Sunnis narrowly miss rejecting the constitution, the second possible outcome, it could spell trouble for Iraq.
The top U.S. general in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month a narrow defeat for the Sunnis could make the situation worse.
"I think that's entirely possible," he said. "As we've looked at this, we've looked for the constitution to be a national compact. The perception now is that it's not."
Casey made those comments before last minute changes apparently catering to Sunni concerns were reached this week. It is unclear, however, whether those changes directly placate Sunni interests, and if they do whether the message has gotten out. Just one Sunni group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, has publicly thrown its support behind the constitution. That organization saw attacks on its headquarters in Fallujah and Bayji Friday.
One of the many complications in Iraq is that there is no single group that speaks for Sunnis. Moreover, there is no reliable method of disseminating local political information. Many Iraqis own TVs but they watch satellite channels, not the meager and often amateurish offerings of local and national media. Many get their news and political information from weekly worship at mosques and through tribal, family and social connections.
The primary means of disseminating information about the constitution, which was only printed and distributed last week, and then not in its final form, is through hand bills and posters.
Thirdly, Sunni voters, tired of the violence and chaos that afflicts their regions most of all, may support the constitution as a means of moving the country forward. This is the possibility that scares insurgents most, said a Sunni Arab and former army general now in charge of the provincial joint coordination center -- a combination 911 call center, congressional office and information desk -- in Tikrit in a September interview.
He told UPI if Sunnis are brought into the government in Baghdad and given a real stake in the future of the country it means the end of the insurgency. The Sunnis as a population know who the fighters are, where the weapons are hidden, who the funding is coming from and how foreign fighters are operating throughout the country. Given appropriate respect and power, they can hand over the intelligence that will swiftly dismantle the insurgency, he said.
A Sunni merchant in Baghdad, who in early October eagerly professed his willingness to do battle with American forces, said if the referendum is seen to be fairly and honestly handled, any outcome be accepted by all Iraqis, Sunnis included. If not, he said, there will be war.
U.S. military officials in Iraq told UPI if there is a violent reaction to the outcome of the referendum, it is likely to be delayed by a few weeks. The insurgency is not tightly organized across Iraq, and the implications of the vote for Sunnis will take time to become clear.
That the constitution is inherently flawed by the meager voice Sunnis have had in it so far is a given, according to Casey and other U.S. officials who closely monitored the document's creation. Yet none advocate slowing the process, even were such a thing possible. Most U.S. military officials will be satisfied that the process is simply going forward, democracy being a precondition for their eventual departure, and something that must exist both in practice and on paper if the insurgency is to be ended.
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