Sunnis divided over constitution as referendum vote approaches

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Iraqis go to the polls in a referendum on the constitution on Saturday in a vote which had been expected to divide the Sunni further from Shia-Kurdish coalition which makes up the government. The Iraqi Islamic Party said it had won significant concessions since the constitution can now be amended next year by an Iraqi parliament to be elected in December.

But the powerful Muslim Scholars Association denounced the agreement saying it was a ploy. It told people to vote 'No' in the poll and imams in Sunni mosques across Iraq are likely to say the same during Friday prayers today.

Zilmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador who played a central role in negotiations on the new agreement, said Iraqis were voting on "a national compact" rather than a constitution. He said it was vital "to bring the communities together to separate the people from the terrorists and the insurgents". He believed the insurgency had to be defeated by political and not military means. Mr Khalilzad said that, after this week's deal, the constitution would no longer be seen as "a Shia-Kurdish document".

The Iraqi Islamic Party, which has been willing to co-operate with the US in the past, may have gained less than it claims. In theory the constitution can be changed by a new parliament and amendments would be ratified under a new referendum. But in practice the Sunni, with only 20 per cent of the population, are unlikely to have enough votes in the National Assembly to introduce significant changes.

In the run up to the referendum Baghdad is closing down with a curfew being introduced and all traffic banned on election day. Voters will have to walk to the polls. But even before the start of the 10pm curfew last night there were few cars on the streets. The guards on public buildings are even more trigger happy than usual and prone to shoot at any vehicle they suspect might be a suicide car bomb.

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