BAGHDAD, Iraq – Several of Iraq’s Sunni leaders Thursday urged their followers to reject the nation’s proposed constitution, as they attempted to distance themselves from the leading Sunni political party’s decision to reverse its stance and support the charter.

With Iraqis set to go to the polls Saturday to vote in a national referendum on the constitution, the renewed calls against it by some Sunni leaders appeared to be a last flurry to knock down a charter that looks increasingly difficult to defeat.

The Iraqi Islamic Party, the leading Sunni organization, threw its support behind the charter after the Shiite-Kurdish bloc agreed to put language into the draft making it possible for the charter to be amended by the next government.

The compromise, however, is insufficient for the Sunni leaders of the National Dialogue Council, the General Council of Iraq’s People and the Association of Muslim Scholars, whose leaders separated themselves from the Iraqi Islamic Party on Thursday.

“We call on the people to boycott the referendum or to vote no,” a spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars, Abdul Salam al-Qubaisi, said at a news conference.

Even before the Islamic Party announced its support of the charter, some of the party’s leaders were considering breaking from the organization and supporting the charter.

U.S. Army Col. Steven Salazar, the commander of coalition forces in the eastern part of Diyala province, said in an interview earlier this week that several of the party’s provincial and municipal leaders told him they were chafing at their party’s opposition.

“When you ask them what they want personally, they say they want to vote for this constitution,” Salazar said of his conversations with IIP leaders in Diyala.

But Salazar also downplayed the significance of the political party’s sway. In a poll funded by the U.S. government, only about 4 percent of those surveyed in Diyala province said that a political party held major influence on how they would vote, Salazar said.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who helped mediate the last-minute deal between the Shiite-Kurd bloc and the IIP, said there were also efforts to negotiate with the National Dialogue Council.

Khalilzad reportedly worked both sides aggressively to come to an agreement. He wouldn’t predict an outcome for the vote but he said widespread support of the charter by the Sunni minority is key to stabilizing the country.

“If they support the constitution … that would help in separating the people from the insurgency,” the ambassador said.

Many Sunni groups, including the IIP until this week, had opposed the charter because they believed it was too favorable to the interests of Shiites and Kurds, the two groups who make up the dominating political bloc and who controlled the writing of the constitution.

Sunni leaders were focused on getting two-thirds of voters in at least three of Iraq’s 18 provinces to vote against the constitution, the easiest way to knock it down. With the IIP now calling for a yes vote, the complicated goal of blocking the constitution has become even more difficult.

In Baghdad’s predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Aadhmiya, the IIP’s reversal confused some and angered others.

Hazim al-Aadhami said he had supported the IIP but that the party has lost credibility with its last-minute shift in stance.

“It is impossible to follow the IIP now because they were calling on people for more than one month, asking them to vote “no,”‘ said al-Aadhami, who said he has decided not to vote Saturday. “Then the last three days they changed their minds.”

Meanwhile, U.S. and Iraqi security forces began tightening security throughout the country Thursday in an attempt to thwart insurgents from derailing the vote.

A 10 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew went into effect Thursday night that won’t be lifted until after the vote, and the Iraqi government will close its border entries and airports Friday. The government also announced that civilian vehicles would be barred from driving the streets starting Friday night until after the referendum is completed.

Soon after dark, the streets of the capital were desolate, an unusual sight for a Thursday night, which marks the end of a workweek and is when families and youngsters usually can be seen crowding the streets of Baghdad.

Iraqi detainees who have not yet been convicted were allowed to vote early Thursday at their prison, according to a U.S. military spokesman. It was unclear whether former President Saddam Hussein, who is being held by the U.S. military in Baghdad, had the opportunity to cast a ballot.


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