WASHINGTON - Iraq's Arab neighbors yesterday appealed to the country's elected government to rework the new constitution on behalf of Sunni leaders who over the weekend rejected a draft of the document.
In an interview with the BBC, the secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, said, "I do not believe in this division between Shiite and Sunni and Muslims and Christians and Arabs and Kurds. ... I don't buy this and I find in this a true recipe for chaos and perhaps a catastrophe in Iraq and around it."
The 22-member Arab League includes Iraq as well as Syria, which President Bush's top aides have accused of actively helping the Iraqi insurgency. Saudi Arabia and Jordan are also members, and terrorist leaders in Iraq have been known to draw funding from bank accounts in both countries affiliated with Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime. None of the league's members - now excepting Iraq - hold regular elections or anchor their laws in the protection of individual liberties.
Over the weekend, Sunni Arab negotiators in Baghdad rejected a compromise constitution draft after objecting to language that would ensure the elimination of the Baath Party and federalist provisions that would give significant autonomy to provinces as opposed to the central government in the capital.
"We don't want to wage a war against anybody, but we say this draft has been written in a way that will divide and tear apart Iraq," a top Sunni negotiator, Saleh al-Mutlaq, told the Associated Press yesterday. "This constitution was written in a hurry and also passed in a hurry."
In June, American commanders and some Iraqi leaders began negotiations with Sunni insurgent leaders, in an attempt to compel them to participate in the talks regarding the new charter, even though many of the provinces under rebel control had boycotted January's National Assembly elections. Those efforts, stage-managed from Washington, have failed.
Sources in Baghdad told The New York Sun that the Sunni rejection of the draft proved that the negotiators were neither empowered nor inclined to compromise on the current version of the constitution, which enshrines free elections, a mortal threat to the political supremacy Sunni Arabs have enjoyed in Iraq since the days of Ottoman Empire. Representatives of the Sunni Arabs in Iraq maintain that they are a demographic majority, a claim that would be tested - and likely proven wrong - in a free election.
Yesterday, Sunni Arab leaders staged demonstrations in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit against the draft constitution. According to the Associated Press "about 2,000 people, mostly Sunnis, marched Monday against the constitution." The wire service reported that some of the demonstrators "carried pictures of Saddam and repeated chants heard in countless stage-managed protests during his regime: 'We sacrifice our souls and blood for you, Saddam.'" Others carried pictures of a Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, who also opposes the constitution's provisions that would grant regions significant provincial autonomy.
In Arizona yesterday, President Bush acknowledged that Sunni Arabs had rejected the draft constitution praised by himself and his aides. "Not everybody agreed with it, but now the Iraqi people get to decide, they get to debate, they get to make the decision this fall as to whether or not that constitution will be the constitution that governs their society," he said.
Yesterday, a State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, echoed Mr. Bush's assessment, saying that it will be up to the Iraqi people in October to vote on the document. "We are only at the very beginning of the ability of the Iraqi people, all the Iraqi people, including the Sunni population, to take a look at the constitution, read it for themselves, and decide for themselves how they're going to vote on October 15," he said.
Yesterday, large numbers of Sunni Arabs in the former terrorist stronghold of Fallujah began registering to vote in the October 15 referendum. If two-thirds of the voters in any three provinces vote against the constitution, it is rejected according to the rules of the transitional administrative law, drafted by the old Iraqi Governing Council during the American-led occupation in 2004.
Yesterday the Beirut Daily Star quoted a Sunni tribal chief, Sheik Majed Jassim al-Showah, as saying, "Everybody is registering to vote in the referendum. This constitution is against Iraq as a united Arab Islamic nation."