BAGHDAD - One of Iraq's two vice presidents criticized the country's proposed new constitution on Monday as a threat to national unity and said he's considering asking his supporters to reject it when it's presented to voters this fall.
The comments by Ghazi al-Yawer, the government's top-ranking Sunni Muslim Arab and a leading moderate who heads one of Iraq's largest tribes, underscored signs that the constitution is likely to widen, not heal, the rift between the Shiite-dominated government and the Sunni minority, the base for Iraq's insurgency.
Al-Yawer said Sunni Arabs are living under a "dictatorship of the majority," referring to the Shiite Muslims and Kurds who dominate the government.
"The Iraqi national identity is diminishing more and more, and this constitution is not helping that," al-Yawer said in an interview at his palatial home in Baghdad.
Al-Yawer, a former exile, has been a central figure in Iraq's politics since U.S. officials named him president of the caretaker government installed in mid-2004. He became one of the current government's two vice presidents after January's national elections. The other vice president is a Kurd, Rowsh Nouri Shaways. Another Kurd, Jalal Talabani, is the country's president, and a Shiite, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, is prime minister.
Al-Yawer said he was torn over whether to urge his constituents to vote against the draft or to accept it and focus on mobilizing for elections to pick a new national assembly in December. But his bitterness suggested that even moderate and U.S.-friendly Sunnis are feeling increasingly alienated in their struggle for a place in the new Iraq.
"My mind says yes, because we have to move along, but my heart is saying no because I feel this is really not what we want for this country," al-Yawer said of his thoughts about the constitution. "I will go and vote `no,' but I will keep in my mind that the biggest possibility is that it's going to pass, so I have to prepare from now."
Al-Yawer said that on Sunday, while Shiite and Kurdish politicians celebrated the proposed constitution at a gathering aired live on TV, he was busy calming concerned Sunni tribal leaders from the insurgent heartland known as the Sunni Triangle.
"Most of them are against the constitution," he said. "They were very unhappy. They were worried. More than angry, they are worried about, `Where are we going? What is Iraq?'"
Al-Yawer said he tried to stress the positive points of the constitution, such as the bill of rights, which may be the most progressive in the Middle East. He said Shiites, under pressure from the Bush administration to include Sunnis, showed some flexibility in the final hours of negotiations.
"It's much better than before, although it falls short of the expectations of many Iraqi nationals," the vice president said. "This constitution is as much as we could get."
Sunnis could block approval of the constitution by mustering a two-thirds majority against it in any three provinces. Sunnis have the numbers, but the lack of voter education and widespread instability in their territories could prevent them from mustering the necessary votes, al-Yawer said. He added that the energy spent campaigning against the constitution would leave Sunnis vastly unprepared to face highly organized Shiite and Kurdish factions in the full national elections in December.
Sunni Arabs are opposed mainly to wording in the draft that erodes the Arab identity of Iraq, as well as clauses that would let provinces unite as powerful regions with a great deal of independence from the central government. Many Sunnis fear that such a model would strengthen the semiautonomous Kurdish north and the homogenous Shiite south, the two areas where most of Iraq's oil wealth is found, while isolating Sunnis in the country's resource-starved central and western territories.
Sunnis also opposed a section of the draft that enshrines the removal of members of Saddam Hussein's former Baath Party from government positions and declares the group a terrorist organization. Sunnis wanted to curtail what they consider to be a witch-hunt that's created widespread unemployment among Sunnis who didn't participate in Saddam's atrocities but joined the Baath Party for career reasons.
Shiites and Kurds, the communities that bore the brunt of Baathist aggression, were adamant about banning the party.
In a goodwill gesture Monday, the Iraqi electoral commission agreed to extend the deadline for voter registration to Sept. 7 for residents of Sunni-dominated Anbar province, home to the troubled towns of Fallujah and Ramadi. The national deadline for registration is Thursday - which Sunnis and some Shiites say doesn't allow enough time for voter education.
The Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest and most respected Sunni political group, announced it would print booklets to instruct its followers on how to vote in the referendum. Tareq al-Hashemi, who heads the party, said leaders hadn't decided whether to launch a campaign against the draft.
"The Islamic Party is going to contest this draft, but we will not refuse it or reject it because it has some good points," al-Hashemi said. "If the points that have been rejected by us are solved, we will say yes to the constitution. If these points remain in the draft, we will probably say no."
© Knight Ridder 2005