One week before Iraqis vote on a constitution intended to remake their nation, U.S. and Arab diplomats are scrambling to broker last-minute concessions from Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish faction leaders that would persuade the Sunni Arab minority to drop its opposition to the proposed charter and defuse the country's Sunni-led insurgency.
Saudi Arabian and Jordanian officials, at the urging of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, have called on Sunni politicians in Iraq to stick with negotiations until Monday, Iraqi and U.S. officials said. Iraqi lawmakers say Monday is the last possible date for bargaining over the language of the constitution, which will be put to voters next Saturday. Ballots are already being printed at a plant in Europe, and the first of millions of copies of the proposed constitution have been distributed across Iraq.
The constitutional referendum has been described by Iraqi and foreign observers as the most significant milestone so far in the development of Iraq's nascent democracy. Completion of the drafting process on Aug. 28 -- two weeks behind schedule -- was supposed to be a unifying process, and parties and activists were to have used the subsequent two months to make their cases for and against the proposed document.
But the version endorsed in August by the Shiite- and Kurdish-led National Assembly was immediately condemned by Sunnis, who had seen their political dominance of Iraq evaporate with the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. As Shiite and Kurdish officials attempted to bring holdout Sunnis on board, negotiations never fully halted. Their goal, according to American diplomats, is a broad national accord to bridge the divide.
"We have to reach out to get support, especially Sunni support but also backing from Shiites and Kurds, and present it as a national compact. We want to do it before the election," said a senior U.S. official in Baghdad, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
But the official acknowledged that the last-ditch diplomacy has been a struggle. "We don't have any Sunnis on board now. We have people who say, 'If you can come up with a package, we'll sign on,' " said the senior official. "We're working with Shiites and Kurds, who also have things they want. So a package is shaping up."
Mishan Jabouri, a Sunni member of the current transitional parliament, said: "I am not sure what else we can do. Some of us want to boycott. Some want people to vote no. Everyone is waiting for Monday, because after that it is really too late."
If two-thirds of voters in at least three provinces vote no, the constitution would be rejected and the new parliament elected in December would have to draft another proposal. Sunni Arabs represent about a fifth of Iraq's population, and Sunni leaders believe that if they muster strong turnout in the handful of provinces where their numbers approach a majority, they could block the constitution.
Some U.S. officials say they hope Sunni turnout will be large enough to give legitimacy to the referendum but too weak to defeat the constitution. Some officials say that having to begin the constitution-drafting process all over again would only worsen instability and push back the possible withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Others, including Gen. George Casey, head of U.S. forces in Iraq, say settling on a compact that shuts out the Sunnis would do the same.
Among the Sunnis' many concerns are the draft's commitment to the concept of federalism, which would formalize the autonomy enjoyed by Kurds in northern Iraq since after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and allow Shiites to form their own highly autonomous federal region in the oil-rich south, where they predominate. Sunnis fear such subdivisions would split Iraq, leaving them only provinces that are poor and largely devoid of precious resources like oil.
In one potential shift, however, a Western diplomat said Saturday that many Sunnis in western Iraq were now calling for federalism themselves, hoping to create a Sunni region there that would be free of both U.S. troops and the new Iraqi military, which is made up largely of Kurdish and Shiite forces.
A U.S. official in Washington said another possibility under consideration was to reopen negotiations on the constitution for a set period in the weeks immediately following parliamentary elections set for mid-December.
But if no breakthroughs are made, it appears Sunnis will reject the constitution. Sunni politicians and clerics in Baghdad and elsewhere have called on worshipers either to boycott the referendum or to turn out to vote down the proposed charter. "Close ranks!" called out a cleric over mosque loudspeakers in a heavily Sunni Baghdad neighborhood late this week. "Go out, and say 'no' to this mongrel constitution."
Echoing that message are Sunni politicians, frustrated at the few gains achieved from their belated agreement to enter the political process for the first time since the U.S.-led routing of Saddam Hussein.
"We agreed to do all we can to challenge the draft in a constitutional way," Hussein Falluji, a Sunni on the National Assembly's constitutional committee, said Saturday night at a meeting in which he and other Sunni leaders in Baghdad decided to tell their followers to vote against the referendum rather than boycott. "Now it is up to the people to say 'no' to the draft."
For their part, Shiite and Kurdish leaders have agreed to compromise language sought by Sunni Arabs that would call the country the "Arab and Muslim nation in Iraq," a Shiite negotiator in the talks, Saad Jawad Qandeel, said Saturday.
Shiites have also agreed to a clause emphasizing Iraq's unity "in its soil, its nation and its sovereignty," in a bid to allay Sunni charges that federalism would split Iraq, Qandeel said. The third and last concession agreed to since the official end to talks, stipulates that Arabic would be declared one of the official languages of the heavily Kurdish north, he said.
The last-minute changes would announced to voters through TV and newspapers, said Qandeel, a member of the National Assembly committee charged with writing the charter.
Shiite negotiators had no intention of giving ground on remaining major issues, Qandeel said, especially federalism or language critical of Hussein's Sunni-led Baath Party.
Sunni politicians say the political impasse has provided them with no leverage to change the minds of insurgent groups that have rejected the political process. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government and security forces, believing some Sunni political and religious leaders have close ties to the fighters, have shown a propensity to crack down on Sunni political parties. Saleh Mutlak, a hard-line Sunni negotiator, said Iraqi soldiers have raided the Baghdad headquarters of the Sunnis' National Dialogue Council offices twice in the past week, once shooting one of his bodyguards in the lung.
"We are in a very difficult position. If we reject the constitution, they say we are with the resistance. But even by sitting at the table, our lives can be threatened by the groups who are fighting the government. How do you campaign in a situation like this?" Mutlak said.
For many Sunnis, Saturday's referendum will mark their first foray into Iraq's post-invasion politics. In a move some Sunni leaders have said they now regret, their parties largely boycotted last January's legislative elections, leaving them underrepresented in the National Assembly and powerless in the face of a determined Shiite Muslim and Kurdish coalition government.
Grass-roots campaigning has begun in Sunni strongholds across Iraq. In Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, in Iraq's restive west, the bazaar was plastered Saturday with posters declaring voters will "take down the constitution by our pens as we defeat you by our rifles." Others, taking the opposite stand, declared: "Participating in the referendum means betraying religion and country."
In a more ominous message, signs warned residents, "Spare your life and the lives of your sons by avoiding the Zionist-American constitution centers."
Internet statements attributed to Abu Musab Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, this summer pledged to kill anyone who took part in the elections. Three Sunni activists working to register voters in Ramadi were shot to death, and their bodies shown in a get-out-the-vote poster.
Ramadi residents said the threat of insurgent attacks on the day of the vote, as well as security measures designed to protect against them, could prevent many people from turning out. The National Dialogue Council said it has collected hundreds of thousands of signatures from Sunnis opposed to the constitution, which it intends to use as evidence that voting was too difficult in Sunni areas, if the constitution passes with few Sunnis turning out.
"The problem is that people don't trust U.S. and Iraqi forces," said Ihsan Abdul Wahid Kubaisi, 42, a high school teacher. "They don't believe that they could protect them on the referendum day."
In a concern echoed by U.S. and Iraqi officials, Mutlak and other Sunni leaders said they feared that if the referendum fails, Sunnis could decide they had been wrong to think peaceful means could help their lot.
"Maybe the worst thing for everyone is if it passes and the vote is close. You will see the violence rise if people start to think, 'What is in this politics for me?' " said Mutlak.
Wright reported from Washington. Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer and special correspondent Omar Fekeiki in Baghdad contributed to this report.