Sunni party attacked on eve of Iraqi referendum

Sunni insurgents launched five attacks against the largest Sunni Arab political party on the eve of Iraq’s crucial referendum on Friday, bombing and burning offices and the home of one of its leaders in retaliation after the group dropped its opposition to the draft Constitution.

The reprisals came as Sunni and Shi’ite clerics gave their last advice to their followers in sermons during weekly Friday prayers—a key political platform. Shi’ite imams transmitted the word of the majority community’s most powerful cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani: go to the polls and vote yes.

The message among the Sunni Arab minority was more muddled after the Iraqi Islamic Party threw its support to the Constitution after last-minute amendments were made to the draft in an attempt to assuage Sunni objections ahead of Saturday’s referendum.

In Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown north of Baghdad, the preacher at the main mosque denounced the Islamic Party, saying it “broke the nationalist ranks in return for nothing”.

Sheik Rasheed Yousif al-Khishman told worshippers at Tikrit’s al-Raheem mosque to vote against the “infidel Constitution written by foreign hands”. Mosques throughout the town told people to cast no-votes and warned “anyone who does not go to the polls is not considered a Sunni”.

But in the nearby town of Samarra, Sheik Adil Mahmoud, of the Association of Muslims Scholars, was more tempered in his sermon.

“I will go to the polls and vote no, but I leave the choice to you to follow you political references,” he told worshippers.
“I respect the opinion of the Iraqi Islamic party and any other party.”

In Baghdad’s biggest Sunni neighbourhood, Azamiyah, several hundred demonstrators marched toward the district’s biggest mosque, Abu Hanifa—a centre for the Iraqi Islamic Party—touting banners proclaiming “No to the Constitution” and chanting slogans describing the party’s chief, Mohsen Abdul-Hamid, as a “traitor”.

Before dawn, someone threw a grenade at the house of the main cleric of the Abu Hanifa Mosque, pro-Islamic Party Sheik Muayad al-Azami, but no one was hurt in the explosion. The night before, his son was threatened by Sunni opponents during prayers, al-Azami said.

In four other attacks, Islamic Party offices were damaged by roadside bombs in Baghdad and the northern towns of Beiji and Seniyah, and by an arson attack in Fallujah, police said. No injuries were reported. Fallujah is the city west of Baghdad that was heavily damaged by a United States offensive against insurgents last year.

Attacks ‘expected’

Before Friday, Sunni insurgents had rarely targeted a Sunni political party. It “was expected because of [the party’s] new stand toward the referendum”, Iraqi army Major Salman Abdul Yahid said after the Baghdad blast.

“Insurgents had threatened to attack the group and its leaders to get revenge,” he said.

Alaa Makki, a senior party official in Baghdad, condemned the attack in the capital and said it won’t stop the moderate group’s efforts to “use the political process to fight terrorism and promote stability in Iraq”.

On Thursday, Iraqi Islamic Party banners urging a no-vote had been removed from where they hung near monuments such as the Grand Imam mosque.

Other Sunni Arab parties still oppose the charter. They fear it would divide Iraq into three separate districts: powerful mini-states of Kurds in the north and majority Shi’ites in the south, both capitalising on Iraq’s oil wealth. By contrast, many Sunnis fear, their minority would be left isolated in central and western Iraq with a weak central government in Baghdad.

In another insurgent attack in Baghdad on Friday, the Muslim day of worship in Iraq, a roadside bomb wounded four Iraqi civilians when it exploded near one of the many schools in the capital that US soldiers are fortifying with concrete barriers and barbed wire so they can be used as polling stations in Saturday’s vote, said police First Lieutenant Mua’taz Saladin.

As police removed bloodstained shoes and shattered glass from damaged cars at the scene, one of the US soldiers working there remained defiant.

“This won’t affect anything planned for tomorrow. The election will go off without a hitch,” Lieutenant David Forbes said in an interview with Associated Press Television News.

In Kirkuk, 290km north of Baghdad, a car bomb exploded near a Kurdistan Democratic Party office, wounding five civilians, said police Brigadier Sarhad Qadir.

Changes to draft Constitution

On Wednesday night, Iraq’s National Assembly endorsed last-minute changes to the draft Constitution worked out by Shi’ite, Kurdish and Sunni powerbrokers that will allow a new Parliament scheduled to be elected in December to adopt amendments to the Constitution.

The compromise may have been enough to split the Sunni “no” campaign, boosting chances of the referendum’s passage.

The draft requires a simple majority vote to pass—but it can be defeated if two-thirds of voters in any three provinces say no. Sunnis have a majority in four of Iraq’s 18 provinces, but most overcome strong Shi’ite and Kurdish communities in several of them.

Coalition forces have warned of a spike in attacks by the militants ahead of Saturday’s vote, and nearly 450 people have been killed in violence over the past 19 days, often by insurgents using suicide car bombs, roadside bombs and drive-by shootings.

Hundreds of Iraqi police and army troops have fanned out across Baghdad, and an eerie calm has settled over the capital and other cities, with little traffic on the streets, few pedestrians and many shops closed.

Coalition forces closed Iraq’s borders and its international airport in Baghdad in another effort to improve security to protect voters. On Thursday, a new 10pm to 6am curfew was imposed and government offices and schools are closed for four days.

All civilian vehicles will be banned on Saturday as Iraqis are expected to walk by the thousands to 6 100 polling centres in Iraq.

In Shi’ite areas of Baghdad, hundreds of posters and banners urging a yes-vote were plastered on many walls and shop windows.

But few such posters hung in mostly Sunni districts of the city.

In the so-called Triangle of Death, a mainly Sunni area south of Baghdad that is known for kidnappings and killings, there was no sign of posters either. On Thursday, Iraqi troops searched cars under the watchful eyes of comrades manning machine-gun positions nearby. US helicopters hovered over the area. Traffic on the road through the “triangle” was thin.

“I will vote yes so as to isolate the troublemakers,” said Faisal Galab, a Sunni Arab sheik from the town of Youssifiyah, about 19km south of Baghdad. “I have asked my family and clan to vote yes.”—Sapa-AP