The Sunni Question

If Haditha isn't exactly no man's land, it is certainly no voter's land. When Iraqi election officials tried to open voter-registration centers in the predominantly Sunni city on the desert road from Baghdad to Syria in early August, they were intimidated away from entering town. Finally, they gave up on their plans to sign up voters for a future constitutional referendum and turned back. Last week some of NEWSWEEK's Iraq reporters found out why. A cabal of foreign fighters--mostly Syrian, Saudi and Algerian--rule the city. They issue death sentences in Taliban-style courts to those convicted of spying for the Americans or the government in Baghdad--seven in the past week, according to locals. The insurgents have closed the city's courts and municipal offices, banned a divorce-court judge from working and imposed strict Sharia across the city. Insurgent spies roam the streets. "The mujahedin completely control the city, which has absolutely no government representation," says resident Abu Mohammed. Insurgents have told residents: participate in the constitutional referendum and you will die. Even in a liberated Iraq, Haditha is a city without a voice. If Iraq is ever to be democratic, that has to change.

The framers of Iraq's draft constitution were still wrestling with issues like federalism and de-Baathification at the end of last week. The situation is so fluid that the negotiators could reach consensus any day--or not. But even if they do hammer out an agreement that would allow the nation-wide constitutional referendum scheduled for Oct. 15 to go forward, the battle for the future of Iraq has already moved from Baghdad to the provinces--to places like Haditha. That's because in less than a week voter registration will end, and the focus of the world will turn to four key Sunni-dominated provinces in central and northern Iraq. If two thirds of the voters in any three Iraqi provinces reject the constitution, the current government will be dissolved, forcing new elections and an entirely new constitution. That would spell trouble for the Bush administration, which is beset by calls for U.S. troops to withdraw. A rejection of the constitution could mean more troops, and more deaths. Already the uncertainty surrounding the political process gave rise to a dramatic escalation in sectarian violence across Iraq last week, amid increasing concerns about civil war. "I am so afraid we will not succeed in the Sunni areas," says Mithal al-Alusi, a secular Sunni moderate and one of the few Sunnis pushing their constituents to adopt the constitution in October. "We're in a third world war."

By boycotting last January's elections, Sunnis forced themselves into effective political exile. "They're not going to make the same mistake twice," says an American adviser to the political process. "If they don't like the constitution, they will do a massive drive to vote it down." Kurdish and Shiite lawmakers are rushing to shore up support for the draft constitution as Sunni Arabs mobilize to vote no. Many Sunni leaders view the constitution as a recipe for the dissolution of Iraq, and remain bitterly opposed to provisions establishing federalism--provisions they say were passed without their consent. They view a referendum as their last chance to take a political stand. "My friends in Anbar and Mosul tell me they feel cheated by the constitution," says Aziz Jabur Shael, a political-science professor in Baghdad. He's willing to support the constitution, but his friends from the provinces are going to vote no in October. Last week a group of Sunni tribal leaders, businessmen and Muslim clerics met in Jordan, where they hastily drafted a letter to U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been pressuring negotiators for consensus. If the vote goes to referendum, they warned, "it will drive the Sunnis to fighting." Even moderate Sunnis who had hoped for consensus on the constitution are now taking a harder line. Hassin Zedan, one such Sunni and a member of the constitutional committee, has worked to reach an accord. But he says if push comes to shove, he'll vote no. The "no" crowd is even looking for help in scuttling the constitution from radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has voiced his own concerns about federalism.

Amid the confusion of last week's constitutional crisis, election officials began scrambling furiously to accelerate the pace of voter registration, particularly in the Sunni provinces, where the insurgency has traditionally hampered their efforts. Officials familiar with the former insurgent hot spot of Fallujah claimed they had set up 53 of 55 planned registration centers.

Plenty of other problems remain. For one, Sunnis are getting mixed messages. Ansar al-Islam, a major Sunni insurgent group, issued a statement equating a no vote on the constitution with jihad and claiming, reportedly, that "rejecting the constitution will defeat the American plan in Iraq." But the residents of Samarra have been bombarded with insurgent fliers urging them to vote yes, and no. If Haditha is any indication, insurgent intimidation is set to get worse in the coming weeks. Residents there complained of beheadings carried out in broad daylight by groups of foreign fighters. Gunmen killed three election officials in Mosul two weeks ago as they put up posters, and last week they attacked the governor of Anbar province as he met with election officials in an Ar Ramadi mosque. Only 11 of 28 registration centers have opened in the key province because of security concerns.

But even if Sunni voters do register and turn out, there's no guarantee they will be able to defeat a referendum. Talal al-Gaaod, a Sunni businessman in Jordan with close ties to Sunni tribes, doesn't believe there are enough votes to carry the necessary two-thirds "no" majority in three of Iraq's provinces. And if the current draft passes? "More chaos," he says. In fact, disturbing signs are already emerging of a violent uptick in the kinds of sectarian tensions many Iraqis fear could lead to civil war. Last week the government evacuated 100 Shiite families from the troubled town of Tall Afar south to Najaf after Sunni Turkomen allegedly attacked them. Hinting at the dangers the government now faces, spokesman Laith Kubba says the government had given the security forces "clear instructions to stay above polarization." It may be too late for ordinary Iraqis to heed that call.