Iraqi lawmakers Wednesday reversed a controversial rule change that would have made it more difficult for opponents of the country's draft constitution to vote it down in a nationwide referendum to be held in 10 days.
Iraqi law states that the proposed constitution will be rejected if "two-thirds of the voters" in at least three of the country's 18 provinces vote against it in the Oct. 15 referendum. The parliament voted Sunday to interpret that to mean two-thirds of a province's registered voters, rather than two-thirds of those who cast ballots, drawing objections from the United Nations and Sunni Arabs who said the ruling virtually guaranteed the document would pass.
But under international pressure and with some Sunni leaders threatening to boycott the referendum, the Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated parliament changed course. On Wednesday, the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly to define "voters" as those who show up at the polls, meaning fewer "no" votes would be required to defeat the constitution.
"I am happy about this decision because I want this to be done democratically, even though we support the constitution," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish legislator and a member of the committee that drafted the constitution. Most Kurds and Shiites are expected to give approval to the charter, while the vast majority of Sunni Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of Iraq's population but hold majorities in some provinces, are likely to vote against it.
"The change is good for the country even if the constitution fails, because I prefer it to be honest and fair and democratic," Othman said.
The shift came as a suicide bomber wearing an explosive belt struck a crowd entering a Shiite mosque in the city of Hilla, 60 miles south of Baghdad, killing at least 25 people and wounding 113, according to Salam Mamouri, commander of the Scorpion Brigade, a police commando unit.
The blast was the latest in a string of attacks against Shiites following calls from insurgent leaders to step up violence during the holy month of Ramadan, which began this week and commemorates the revelation of the Koran to the prophet Muhammad. On Wednesday, the day many Muslims began their observance of Ramadan, Shiite worshipers who had fasted all day were gathering for the traditional evening meal known as iftar when the bomber struck.
Politicians and military officials here have predicted that violence could peak as the referendum approaches. U.S. and Iraqi officials have long expressed hope that the process of drafting and passing a permanent constitution to replace an interim document written a year ago would help unite Iraq's religious and ethnic factions under a national banner. But the drafting process proved divisive, as the document was rubber-stamped by the parliament over Sunni objections.
Earlier this week, Sunni politicians -- joined by some Kurds and Shiites -- called the parliament's shifting interpretation of rules for the referendum anti-democratic. U.N. officials, through public statements and behind-the-scenes negotiating sessions in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, urged Iraqi lawmakers to reconsider their stance.
The United Nations, which withdrew its international staff from Iraq following an August 2003 bombing at its Baghdad office that killed its envoy and 22 others, provided constitutional experts to assist the drafting process and will monitor the referendum, as well as legislative elections slated for December.
"I think is it is very important that the Iraqi parliament reversed itself, because that decision was patently inappropriate and we made that clear to them," U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan told reporters in New York.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the Iraqi lawmakers' reversal "a positive outcome for Iraq and its political development."
Hussein Shahristani, a Shiite who is deputy chairman of Iraq's National Assembly, said the lawmakers' action on Sunday had been intended to frame the rules in a way that would make it harder for insurgents to block the constitution by intimidating voters into staying home. "We thought it was not unfair the way it was, but it was the view of the U.N. that it would be more acceptable and fair this way," Shahristani said in an interview after Wednesday's vote.
Some Sunni leaders said they would now focus on encouraging voters to oppose the constitution. Others said a boycott was still a possibility. If the constitution is rejected, existing law requires that Iraq's parliament dissolve, new elections be held and a new charter written.
Also Wednesday, U.S. Marines and Iraqi soldiers continued their sweep through western towns along the Euphrates River that are believed to be insurgent havens. Six fighters alleged to be members of the insurgent group al Qaeda in Iraq have been killed and 110 suspected insurgents detained in the operation that began Tuesday, according to a military statement.
In Baghdad, the Army turned over security control of two districts, Khadra and Rasafa, to the Iraqi army's 6th Division, according to Maj. Flora Lee, a U.S. military spokeswoman.
Sarhan reported from Najaf. Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki and Bassam Sebti in Baghdad and staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.