By Alastair Macdonald and Waleed Ibrahim
BAGHDAD, Oct 17 (Reuters) - Iraq's disaffected Sunni Arab minority
finds itself at a crossroads of sorts after taking part in large numbers for
the first time in a free election.
Tempting the Sunnis further towards politics and away from revolt
will take skilful bargaining by other Iraqi leaders -- and U.S. diplomats
trying to stifle a budding civil war.
The likely "Yes" result in Saturday's constitutional referendum may
prompt an upsurge in violence; but the vote has also forged a Sunni
political movement that, for the first time, will fight its corner in a
parliamentary election in December.
Some in Saddam Hussein's once dominant community complained on
Monday that indications the new constitution looked set to be ratified were
proof of electoral fraud, abetted by the United States, and warned of a new
wave of insurgent military action.
"They want to destroy the real result," said Hussein al-Falluji, a
Sunni politician who took part in the negotiations on the constitution and
rejected the final draft forced through by the Shi'ite- and
Kurdish-dominated parliament. "This is why they need five days just to count
the ballot papers."
"If it is proven this referendum was rigged I'm sure the security
situation will get worse," Falluji told Reuters.
But, as Saddam prepares to stand trial on Wednesday for crimes
against humanity, other Sunni nationalist leaders said they would accept
Iraqis had said "Yes" in Saturday's referendum and would seek amendments
peacefully in the next parliament.
"We expect the constitution to be ratified and this is not the
issue," said Fakhri al-Qaisi of the National Dialogue.
"Now we are concentrating on the next election because I believe a
real presence for the nationalist forces in the next parliament will restore
balance and serve the Iraqi people."
BALLOTS AND BULLETS
There may be elements of a deliberate twin-track approach --
violence and politics -- to secure concessions for the 20 percent minority;
but U.S. officials, trying to extract their troops from Iraq while leaving
behind some sort of stability, are encouraged by the Sunnis' new
participation in politics.
With partial results showing an overall "Yes" majority, ratification
hinges on the "No" camp not having a two-thirds majority in three of Iraq's
18 provinces. Two Sunni provinces appear to have produced such a vote but in
a third, around Mosul, it has fallen short, senior officials said.
Sunni Arabs have cried foul: "They're waiting for what's happening
in Mosul," said a militant nationalist in northern Iraq who claims to speak
for underground insurgent leaders.
The rebels, he said, had coordinated a general ceasefire which
accounted for the relative absence of violence on polling day and was
designed to ensure a big "No" vote in Sunni areas.
But he added: "If the government manipulates things in Mosul and
lets the constitution pass the next thing will be general strikes,
demonstrations and an increase in military operations."
Toby Dodge of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in
London said that showed some insurgents, if not the radical Islamist fringe,
tacitly backed the political process.
"This is incredibly important as it means that those deploying
violence are doing so for political reasons and can be brought into the
process by clever diplomacy," he said.
"It is the responsibility of those in the Green Zone (government
compound), especially the U.S. ambassador, to make the most of this window
of opportunity," he said.
Some Sunni political leaders have offered to mediate in direct talks
between the Americans and insurgents. Washington insists it will not bargain
with "terrorists" but has conceded that U.S. officials have had contact with
Falluji said disillusion with Saturday's process could mean Sunnis
repeating in December their boycott of January's election which left them
sidelined when the constitution was negotiated:
"What is the point of this at the end of the day if they're going to
fix the result?" he said, warning of mass protests.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan conceded the referendum
highlighted division rather than national solidarity: "We had hoped that the
constitutional process would have been ... totally inclusive, and pull
together all the Iraqis ...
"Obviously, that did not happen and has not happened. So it is very
difficult to say what happens after the votes are counted ... Would the
violence cease after this process?
"I don't think we can legitimately expect that. But at least, they
have chosen to use ballots and not bullets."
Joost Hilterman of the International Crisis Group think-tank in
Amman said political and military strategy were probably running in parallel
for some Sunni leaders, but the high turnout in many Sunni areas showed
politics was now important to them.
"They've turned themselves into political players," he said. "It
shows a political posture in addition to a violent one.
"The (December) elections are more important to them ... The option
of violence is not going to work," Hilterman said. "I don't think they ever
thought they could defeat this constitution."
Of whether U.S.-backed talks on amending the constitution would
succeed, he said: "Much will depend on the the U.S. government in brokering
some agreement. And on the Shi'ites in being willing to make concessions."
(Additional reporting by Alistair Lyon and Omar al-Ibadi)