Masked gunmen in the western city of Ramadi responded violently Thursday to recent calls for political participation among Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, opening fire on local leaders who had gathered to discuss plans to register voters for a nationwide constitutional referendum.
The midmorning attack wounded three people, including the branch heads of the Sunni Endowment, the government agency responsible for Sunni religious affairs, and the Association of Muslim Scholars, Iraq's most influential Sunni religious group. The hail of machine-gun fire from slow-moving sedans came at the close of the meeting, as tribal leaders and Anbar province's governor, Mamoun Sami Rashid, were answering reporters' questions on the steps of the city's Great Mosque.
The attack came as the U.S. military reported four soldiers killed Wednesday by roadside bombs in the northern city of Samarra.
The violence in Ramadi was the latest skirmish in a high-stakes struggle unfolding in Sunni Arab strongholds such as Anbar and Salahuddin provinces as lawmakers in Baghdad work to complete a draft of Iraq's permanent constitution.
Sunni political and religious leaders have launched ambitious voter registration drives in advance of a scheduled Oct. 15 referendum on the constitution -- a reversal after nearly two years' refusal to participate in Iraqi politics, including a Sunni boycott of elections held in January. But insurgents have countered their efforts with intimidation, declaring that anyone who encourages people to vote will be killed.
"The Sunnis are going to take part in the referendum regardless" of any interference, said Sheik Nasr Fahdawi, a local tribal leader who attended the meeting in Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad. He said that the boycott had only strengthened Iraq's other ethnic and sectarian blocs, particularly the majority Shiite Muslims, and that Sunnis must vote so they will "not be marginalized in the future."
In a statement issued three hours after the Ramadi attack, al Qaeda in Iraq, the insurgent group led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, asserted responsibility and said it intended to discourage Sunnis from voting on the "devil's constitution."
Meanwhile, in Baghdad, U.S. and British ambassadors sat in on talks with delegates and political leaders piecing together the new constitution and pushed all sides to meet Monday's deadline. Negotiators and others close to the talks spoke optimistically, saying a draft constitution could be presented to parliament as soon as Saturday.
But the reactions of some Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds Thursday to what they said was the working copy of the draft showed disagreement remained on most key issues. The draft, for example, said no law could be enacted that contradicted the basic tenets of Islam. Kurdish negotiators, however, said they were pushing to limit that language to the tenets agreed upon by all sects within Islam.
One provision in the draft on which all sides appeared to have agreed was that the country -- to be called the Republic of Iraq -- would operate under a federated system in which participation would be by choice. That answered a demand by leaders of the autonomous Kurdish north, whose constituents strongly favor independence.
Sunni Arabs are considered the most likely barriers to consensus on the constitution. Composing an estimated 20 percent of Iraq's population, their political power plummeted with the fall of Saddam Hussein, and their electoral boycott left them underrepresented in Iraq's National Assembly. But they have recently reentered the political fray by demanding and receiving greater representation on the constitution-writing commission.
Since January, more than 80,000 people have registered to vote, many of them in Sunni-majority regions, according to Farid Ayar, spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission, who said he expects a surge in registrations before the Sept. 1 deadline.
"We have set up five polling places in Fallujah and five more today in Ramadi," he said, referring to the two largest cities in Anbar province. "Most of the Sunnis seem eager to participate in the referendum. We met with many leaders of them who came to us and said this."
The Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's largest Sunni political organization, is coordinating registration efforts across the country, according to a spokesman, Sheik Omar Juboury. This week, the party opened a registration office in the Karkh district of Baghdad. "We believe this is an important event to make our voice heard," he said.
Registration drives are underway in predominantly Sunni areas of Iraq where turnout was almost nonexistent in January.
In a meeting of Sunni leaders Sunday in the northern city of Tikrit, religious and militia leaders encouraged people to vote in defiance of a recent insurgent declaration that anyone who participated in the referendum would be killed. After the meeting, registration soared, according to Aqeel Hassan Abdulah, who runs a Tikrit polling center.
But in opposition to such initiatives, Zarqawi-linked insurgents have stepped up their campaign of violence.
In Samarra this month, imams instructed worshipers at Friday prayers to register to vote. A few days later, armed men turned up at the town bazaar passing out leaflets signed by al Qaeda in Iraq that read: "Every faithful should follow the Koran and his prophet and not to follow the infidels and their supporters who are writing the constitution." When police tried to stop them, the gunmen opened fire, killing two officers.
But nowhere will Sunnis' resolve to participate in politics be more tested than in Anbar, a vast desert province where opposition to Iraq's Shiite-led government and to the U.S. military presence is strong and where insurgents still flourish despite a half-dozen Marine operations against them since early May.
In more than a dozen Ramadi mosques, Zarqawi's followers recently posted signs declaring their intent to "strike the referendum centers," calling them "centers of blasphemy" and "a legitimate target for the fire of the holy warriors."
At Thursday's meeting in Ramadi, the provincial capital, Sunni clerics, tribal leaders and politicians gathered to develop a strategy for encouraging participation and securing polling centers.
Asked about the threats by insurgents, one attendee, Mahdi Salih, a former major general in Hussein's army, said people would not be scared away from the polls.
"We are going to risk our lives for the sake of our children if the Zarqawi group insists on its position," he said.
Special correspondents Salih Saif Aldin in Tikrit and Naseer Nouri and Khalid Saffar in Baghdad contributed to this report.