US attacks al-Qa'ida base as splits grow over new Iraq constitution

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The Independent Online

About 1,000 US troops, backed by helicopters, launched a new offensive yesterday in one of four Iraqi provinces expected to play a key role in the constitutional referendum later this month.

The attack was on Sedea, a village on the banks of the Euphrates eight miles from Syria. According to the US military, it had been taken over by al-Qa'ida in Iraq, the group headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and was being used as a base for foreign fighters entering from Syria.

But insurgent activity continued elsewhere. In Baghdad, the brother of Bayan Jabr Solagh, the Interior Minister, was kidnapped yesterday evening. An hour earlier, Firas Marid, the son of another senior official in the ministry, was seized by gunmen in Taji, north of Baghdad, and in Basra, in the south, a roadside bomb killed a Danish soldier - only the second to die in Iraq.

Columns of smoke were reported to be rising from Sedea after air strikes. Helicopters fired on three vehicles along the way, two of themcarrying suicide bombers and the third being loaded with weapons, according to CNN.

The village is in Anbar, a vast, almost exclusively Sunni Muslim province stretching west from Baghdad to Syria. US and Iraqi troops had been bracing themselves for violence in Anbar and three other Sunni provinces where the fate of the constitution will be decided in the referendum on 15 October. "It is very simple," said Saad, a Shia from Baquba, the capital of Diyala province. "Here the Sunni support the insurgents and the Shias support the government. If this goes on, there will be civil war and rivers of blood."

The Sunni see the new federal decentralisation of power as the end of a united state. The Kurds and Shias drew up the constitution so, for the first time, they will hold power.

To block the constitution, the Sunni need to win two-thirds of the votes cast in three of Iraq's 18 provinces. There are only four provinces - Anbar, Nineveh, Salahudin and Diyala - where they are in a majority, but even in these they will have their work cut out.

In Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province and the largest Sunni Arab city, Abu Younis, the owner of a car spare parts shop, was pessimistic about the Sunni defeating the constitution. He said: "There are two reasons why we will fail. We are not united enough all to say no and the Shias are. Also [the Grand Ayatollah Ali] al-Sistani has told them to vote for the constitution, and they will do so."

This is probably an accurate assessment. Only in Anbar is there likely to be a two-thirds majority against. Elsewhere some will not vote because they are heeding Zarqawi's call for a boycott, or because they think it is too dangerous.

The Iraqi government takes comfort in the belief that if the Sunni vote, this shows their involvement in the political process, unlike in the January election when they boycotted the poll. Yet if the Sunni fail to stop the constitution, despite voting, this may alienate them further. There are other reasons why the Sunni turnout may be low. The US and Iraqi army have just captured the mainly Sunni Turkoman city of Tal Afar, west of Mosul. "The Americans are attacking all the Sunni cities like Fallujah, Ramadi, Baquba, Samarra and Tikrit, so how can people vote?" asked Abu Younis.

But the best chance of the Sunni blocking the constitution may have been lost because of the devastating car bomb attacks on Shia civilians. The religious-nationalist Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr has shown little enthusiasm for the constitution but, with the Shias under attack, he can hardly form an electoral pact with the Sunnis. In any case, his support is mainly in Baghdad.