Leaders try to avoid sectarian reprisals

Sunni leaders were anxiously trying to calm the situation, as emotions ran high after the stampede. Saadoun al-Dulaimi, the Defence Minister and a Sunni Arab, said on television that "what happened has nothing at all to do with any sectarian tension".

Yet temperatures on all sides have risen by the day. Even moderates in the minority Sunni community are fuming over the draft constitution, which was rammed through at the beginning of the week by the dominant Shia and Kurdish factions on the drafting committee.

The 15 Sunnis on the committee rejected the draft, which looked likely further to inflame the sectarian tensions because of its insistence on a federal structure for the new Iraq. The Sunnis are worried that the wealth of Iraq - which they ruled under Saddam Hussein - will be carved up between the Kurds and Shias whose regions are home to the country's oil reserves. The Shias came late to federalism, but seeing the Kurds' insistence on retaining autonomy in the northern region, which they have enjoyed since 1991, they realised they, too, had an oil card to play.

The next step is a referendum on 15 October, prior to elections in December for a new parliament. Sunnis are campaigning for a "no" vote. America's hopes of tweaking the draft constitution to obtain Sunni endorsement appear doomed.

Iraq's Shias have showed remarkable restraint as the bombings have gone on. They have been systematically targeted by Sunni militants and the terrorists of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as he tries to trigger full-scale war between the two communities.

The question now is: how much longer will the Shia restraint last?

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