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Where Charter Is Least Of Worries
Local Issues Top List In Town in S. Iraq

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 7, 2005

SAMAWAH, Iraq -- The first copies of the draft constitution that would remake Iraq arrived in this sandy provincial capital in U.S. military helicopters, offloaded with a phalanx of neatly pressed and jacketed Iraqi officials keen to explain the charter.

U.S., Australian and British soldiers carted about half a dozen boxes filled with copies of the charter into the dilapidated, sparely furnished government offices for tribal, religious and political leaders of Muthanna province to peruse late Wednesday afternoon.

Gov. Mohammed Hassani, deep in dialogue with the rare visitors from the central government in far-off Baghdad, idly leafed through a proffered copy. Turning back to his visitors, he let the document fall into the crack of his armchair seat cushion. In a meeting that, because of daily power cuts, had to be illuminated by the headlights of police trucks pulled up to the windows of the governor's office, Hassani had more pressing concerns.

When would Baghdad provide his province enough electricity? Hassani and the robed sheiks ringed around him wanted to know. When would Baghdad provide clean water, better roads? "The government should support the prices of the crops," the governor added, midway through what would be hours of petitioning by the provincial officials.

"They let me know they had this specific number of missing chairs in the elementary school and wanted to know exactly who was going to provide them," the central government's top spokesman, Laith Kubba, said afterward. "I can't say there were many questions about the constitution."

In Muthanna, whose half-million residents are 97 percent Shiite Muslim and unswervingly loyal to their tribes, approval of the constitution in the Oct. 15 national referendum is a "foregone conclusion," Kubba noted.

The traditional fealty among Iraq's southern Shiites to the dictates of their tribal leaders, plus a strong sense that the constitution in general is a good thing for Iraq's newly empowered Shiite majority, makes support for the charter a lock. Only the strong opposition of Sunni Muslim Arabs -- a minority whose demands for the constitution went largely ignored in the "majority wins, minority loses" atmosphere of Iraq's new democracy -- makes defeat of the constitution a possibility.

The unveiling of the constitution in Samawah revealed just how unsophisticated, almost pre-political, the democracy is, and how loyal the majority is to the Shiite tribal, religious and political leaders steering Iraq.

Raysan Zayady, a sports jacket over his white dishdasha and sheer summer robe, was asked whether he would advise his tribe how to vote. "Of course," the sheik replied. "I have told my tribal people they will vote yes on the constitution."

Zayady had yet to read the draft constitution, although he clutched one of the newly distributed copies in his hand. "I don't have e-mail," he confessed.

The fact that Shiite politicians in Baghdad had signed off on the charter was good enough for Zayady -- and, he said, good enough for the 5,000 members of his tribe.

"We trust our political leaders to make a constitution that is for the good of the people," the sheik said.

Most of the voters in Muthanna, a province reached by a one-hour-plus helicopter flight from Baghdad over camel herds and palm groves, appear likely to vote without ever seeing one of the copies in the few boxes brought in Wednesday. And it's not clear whether those copies reflected any of the last-minute changes being made in continuing negotiations on the charter, as U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad presses Shiites and minority Kurds to come up with a charter more acceptable to Sunnis.

It's not that information isn't available here. Local television has devoted 10 minutes each morning to explaining individual aspects of the charter, residents said. Reasonably lively local newspapers have reported on the constitution as well, British military officials here said.

Tribal leaders said the basics are known: creation of a federal system of government that could give Shiites their own oil-rich region in the south as well as majority control of the central government in Baghdad. And, Zayady said, "victory over terrorism" -- an allusion to the Sunni Arabs, whose loss of the dominance they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein has fueled Iraq's insurgency.

But Baghdad and the insurgent attacks there seem remote from this homogenous region. Harry Fitzgerald, a political adviser to the British army commander, Col. Hugh Blackman, had to think for several seconds when asked when Muthanna last had a bombing. "June," he finally said.

Muthanna almost looks like another country, one without the black funeral banners for bombing victims that drape Baghdad or the concrete blast walls that make it a fortress. But it's not immune to violence. In August, police shot and killed at least two protesters as about 1,000 people demonstrated outside the governorate demanding more electricity and clean water.

In coming weeks, authorities will throw the switches on a new power plant in the province, U.S. officials said. But its electricity will go to Baghdad, where outages cause even more complaints and more political and economic fallout.

"We've gone from a state where the center controlled everyone to one where some complain that the center is almost absent," said Kubba, the government spokesman, acknowledging that he came carrying no immediate remedies from Baghdad. "We're trying to put it together again."

In Muthanna, as in much of Baghdad, the leaders building the government were once members of the anti-Hussein insurgency. A British military official said Hassani, the governor, was a longtime leader of the Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia that trained in exile in Iran when Hussein was in power. The guerrilla-turned-governor seems to get his way now in political debates, the official noted.

In Muthanna on Wednesday night, local officials scheduled, then canceled a town hall-style meeting where Muthanna's people were to have had a chance to see the constitution and the Baghdad officials who brought it. Hassani and other local leaders thought it more important for the visitors to hear their own complaints, Kubba said.

As the Baghdad officials and their British, U.S. and Australian escorts left, police carried the boxes of the draft constitution into Hassani's office, for safekeeping.

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