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Iraq Transition

Much rides on Iraqi constitution vote

Factional, insurgent violence may hinge on outcome


• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide


U.S. Military

(CNN) -- As Iraqis vote Saturday on a new constitution, much more than a permanent government could be at stake, including peace between Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions and the future of the insurgency.

The nationwide referendum is a nexus for the goals of three groups: the U.S.-led movement for a democratic Iraq, ethnic and religious factions fighting for political power and insurgents using terrorist tactics to promote Islamic fundamentalism.

Despite a last-minute compromise deal on Wednesday between the Kurdish-Shiite coalition of the National Assembly and a major Sunni party, conflicts between the three groups over power-sharing in a permanent government have yet to be resolved. (Watch: Sunni group strikes deal on constitution -- 2:11)

Many of Iraq's minority Sunnis think a government with autonomous regions as outlined in the draft charter would be unfair to them and could lead to armed conflict.

"If they want civil war, they should go with this" constitution, said Salih al-Mutlag, head of a coalition of 10 Sunni factions. "What I see is that if they go and adopt this constitution then there will be three states in Iraq: one extremist Islamic Shiite government region in the south, an extremist Sunni government in the middle of Iraq and a chauvinist government in the north," he said, referring to Iraq's northern Kurdish region.

Under the compromise proposed by the Sunni party -- the Iraqi Islamic Party -- Sunnis would have an opportunity to amend the constitution if it is approved, according to a party spokesman. (Full story)

Another fear is that the constitution will pass, albeit narrowly, despite a a successful mobilization of 'no' votes cast by Iraqi Sunnis. Such an outcome could lead to further violence, said Michael Rubin, a policy analyst on the Middle East, "because that's indicative that the Arab Sunni population mobilized a vote and still lost anyway, and therefore they may feel even more disenfranchised."

Although Sunni Arabs represent a minority in Iraq -- 20 percent of the nation's population of 26 million people -- they held the reins of power during the Saddam regime.

In the January 30 vote for the transitional National Assembly, which drafted the constitution, two powerful Sunni groups did not participate and overall Sunni turnout was low. In Anbar province, Iraq's largest and home to the Sunni strongholds of Ramadi and Falluja, only 2 percent of voters cast ballots.

Vote could inflame insurgents

Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie said a defeat for the constitution could embolden the insurgency.

They would "consider it a victory for them," Rubaie said, "because they managed to disrupt the political process. They would have managed to prevent people from going to ballot boxes and say 'yes' to the constitution."

U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said in August that "if the Sunnis do not buy into this draft ... then it would be a problem. It could assist the insurgency."

Repeating the process

If the constitution is defeated, the fledgling democracy will have to repeat much of the difficult political process that has already taken place since the January assembly vote.

A new National Assembly will have to be elected, a new constitutional committee will have to be formed and another document will have to be put before the people.

"It will add another six months of an interim period transitional government, and a lot of people would like to get on with their lives," said Laith Kubba, an Iraqi government spokesman.

CNN's Aneesh Raman contributed to this report.

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