Shiites push for 'yes' vote on new Iraqi constitution

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The leader of Iraq's largest Shiite political organization joined the country's most revered and powerful Shiite cleric Saturday in a strong public push for voter support of a new constitution, three weeks ahead of a national referendum.

The major political development surrounded Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Shiite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. His appeal to voters added a key voice of support two days after Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani also directed followers to back the charter.

Doing their duty

"It is our religious duty to say 'yes' to the constitution and to go to the ballot boxes," al-Hakim told more than 2,000 supporters gathered in Baghdad to mark a 1991 Shiite uprising brutally crushed by Saddam Hussein.

Al-Hakim said militants and former regime supporters were trying to undermine Iraqis' hopes for security -- but they would fail. His SCIRI organization has strong ties to Shiite Iran and controls a powerful bloc in parliament. Al-Hakim took refuge in Iran during Saddam's rule.

Al-Sistani, meeting with aides Thursday in the holy city of Najaf, was the first major Shiite religious figure to urge voters to back the new basic law, according to two top officials in his entourage. The reclusive cleric issues statements only through his office and makes no public appearances.

In January, millions of Shiites heeded al-Sistani's call to vote in Iraq's first democratic elections in nearly half a century. The ballot gave the Muslim sect a majority in the new parliament and government.

Shiite solidarity is essential if the constitution is to pass in the Oct. 15 vote. If two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces reject the document, a new government must be formed and the process of writing the constitution started over.

The opposition

Minority Sunni Arabs are dominant in four provinces and could defeat the new charter should they vote "no" as a bloc in three of them. On Saturday, Sunni clerics and tribal leaders expressed optimism they could do just that while gathered at a meeting organized to scuttle the charter.

The three-day meeting, held in Amman, Jordan, for security reasons, ended with a communique urging a 'no' vote "if the constitution's main points on Iraq's unity and Arab identity are not rectified, as well as articles related to political and racial segregation."

Meeting organizer and prominent cleric Sheik Abdul-Latif Himayem told The Associated Press he expected at least 51 percent of Iraq's electorate to vote "no" in the referendum.

Sunnis have sharply opposed the draft constitution, largely because it would give Shiites in the south the right to form a mini-state that Sunnis fear will deprive them of oil wealth and ultimately lead to Iraq's fragmentation.

Hard feelings

Seething anger resurfaced in Basra when Katyusha rockets were fired at the U.S. and British consulates but fell in a nearby field, police Capt. Mushtaq Khazim said.

Three more rockets were fired at the Shat al-Arab Hotel, headquarters of the British army, he said. One rocket hit the building without causing casualties. The two others hit nearby homes, wounding a resident, Khazim said.

Judge Raghib al-Mudhafar, chief of the Basra Anti-Terrorism Court, said Saturday he reissued homicide arrest warrants for the two soldiers, rekindling hard feelings despite attempts by Iraqi and British officials to cool tempers.

"Iraqi law is very clear: British personnel are immune from the Iraqi legal process. They remain subject to British law. Even if such a warrant was issued, it would therefore be of no legal effect," Defense Secretary John Reid said.

West of Baghdad, U.S. forces kept up pressure on insurgents near their Ramadi stronghold. Al-Sharqiyah television said the Americans operating in Hit detained more than 40 men who served in Saddam's armed forces in ranks ranging from major to brigadier general. The U.S. military did not report the arrests. Ramadi is 70 miles west of Baghdad, and Hit is another 15 miles west.

Ramadi police Lt. Yarub al-Duleimi said American forces blew up three houses in the region, claiming they contained weapons caches. Police Lt. Mohammed Al-Obaidi said a roadside bomb destroyed a U.S. patrol vehicle in the city center at dawn. There was no report of casualties from either the Iraqis or the Americans.

In Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad, police Capt. Arkan Ali said U.S. troops killed eight Iraqis and wounded six when they opened fire after a roadside bomb hit their patrol, damaging a tank. The U.S. military was checking the report.