Sunni leaders advised their supporters to vote against the charter in a nationwide referendum to be held on Oct. 15. They say a dominant Shiite Arab and Kurdish alliance pushed the constitution through the drafting committee without regard for Sunni concerns.
Sunni objections include provisions that allow for levels of autonomy in the Kurdish north and the possibility of a similar region in the Shiite south, which distances Sunnis from Iraq’s oil wealth concentrated in the opposite ends of the country, and intensifies Iranian influence in the south.
“We have reached a point where this constitution contains the seeds of the division of Iraq,” Sunni constitutional committee member, Mahmoud al-Mashadani, told the New York Times.
The constitution also makes references to Saddam’s Sunni-dominated Baath Party, which Sunnis fear will lead to purges of Sunnis from government jobs.
The protestors, totaling at least 2,000, gathered outside the office of the Association of Muslim Scholars, a hard-line group opposed to the U.S. occupation. They waved Iraqi flags and carried portraits of the deposed dictator.
“We sacrifice our souls and blood for you, Saddam,” the demonstrators shouted.
The absence of Sunni support could prove to be a devastating blow to the constitutional process. The charter will not go into effect if two-thirds of voters in any three provinces reject it. Sunnis hold a majority in at least four of Iraq’s 18 provinces.
Iraq will have to hold new parliamentary elections and begin the drafting process from scratch if voters reject the constitution in October.
The protest followed a joint statement issued by Sunni negotiators on Sunday shortly after parliament received the draft. They disparaged the constitution as “illegitimate” and called upon the Arab League and United Nations to arbitrate.
In an additional slight to the process, Iraq’s Sunni vice president, Ghazi al-Yawer, skipped a Sunday ceremony celebrating the completion of the document.
Hoping to mollify the Sunnis, Iraq’s electoral commission said Monday that it would keep the registration period in Anbar province open for an additional week. The province is mostly Sunni and especially violent, with insurgents attacking election workers and warning residents not to go to the polls.
An official with the Independent Electoral Commission said only 19 of the province’s 28 registration centers had opened so far.