Sunni Arabs gear up for referendum despite Al Qaeda

BAGHDAD — Disenchanted Sunni Arabs, who largely boycotted Iraq’s first post-Saddam elections in January, are gearing up in force to participate in the upcoming referendum on the constitution, despite deadly threats from Al Qaeda.
“The participation in this process [referendum] is a duty and a responsibility. We all should take part,” said a statement issued on Friday by the Association of Muslim Scholars in Fallujah, a Sunni stronghold 50 kilometres west of Baghdad.

Iraqi politicians have been racing against the clock to draft a constitution by August 22, after failing to meet the original August 15 deadline.

Iraq’s present law stipulates that the constitution should be put to referendum on October 15, before opening the ballot box again for a new general election in mid-December.

Sunni Arabs, who make up around one-fifth of Iraq’s estimated 27 million population, dominated Saddam Hussein’s regime and all previous Iraqi governments. They were left largely alienated after boycotting the January polls.

On Saturday, dozens of Sunnis lined up at registration centres in Fallujah and Samarra — towns in the restive Sunni heartland — holding their identity cards, to secure their right to vote in the referendum.

The Iraqi government is pleased with the Sunni Arabs’ enthusiasm to join in, as they flocked to the registration booths in the predominantly Sunni central and western regions of Iraq.

Government spokesman Leith Kubba boasted Thursday that some 80 per cent of those who refrained from voting in the January polls have enlisted to vote in the referendum and the December elections.

But the keenness shown by Sunnis appears to aim at defeating a likely federal constitution, rather than legitimising the current political system.

“The people of Iraq will defeat a federal constitution in the October referendum,” Saleh Al Motlag, a Sunni Arab member of the constitution drafting committee told AFP.

“We are against the principle of federalism because we want the country to be centrally governed.”

Although a minority, the Sunni Arabs have a chance to throw the spanner in the works and reel back the whole political process to its starting point.

Iraq’s interim law rules that the constitution fails if two-thirds of the people in any three of Iraq’s 18 provinces vote against it during the referendum.

The Sunnis form a clear majority in Anbar, Salehaddin and Ninawa provinces, with a strong presence in Tamim.

They fear that a federal law would change Iraq’s identity, in addition to robbing them of the country’s oil wealth, concentrated in the Kurdish north and Shiite south.

“He who does not participate in the referendum should seek an alternative homeland because all his rights would be plundered,” Rafea Issawi, a local leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party — the main Sunni party — in Fallujah said in a public meeting last week.

But Sunni Arabs who intend to participate in October’s referendum face death threats from the group of Al Qaeda frontman in Iraq Abu Mussab Zarqawi.

“Muslim brother, please know that the polling stations of the non-believers will be legitimate targets of the mujahedeen’s attacks. Therefore, stay far away for your own safety,” the group said on July 14, one day after it threatened to kill any Muslim imam who speaks out in favour of Iraq’s constitution.

In an incident which might show that Al Qaeda is honouring its threat, three members of the Sunni Islamic Party were executed by gunfire Friday after being kidnapped in the northern city of Mosul.

The three victims were putting up posters calling for participation in the forthcoming referendum.

“We cannot accuse anyone. We feel this [attack] falls within the efforts to terrorise the Sunnis in order to dissuade them from taking part in the referendum,” Iyad Samarrai, spokesman of the Islamic Party told AFP.

He brushed away speculation that Al Qaeda was behind the attack, saying that “all resistance factions — and maybe Al Qaeda — are calling for participation [in the referendum] to say no” to the constitution.

“Some statements attributed to Al Qaeda threaten those who want to participate… I believe that whoever utters such call is in fact calling upon the Sunnis to be isolated in order to have no political future in Iraq,” he added.

In July, some 300 Sunni leaders called also for participation in the next elections.

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