After UN Criticism, Iraq Restores Voting Rules

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq's National Assembly voted Wednesday to reverse last-minute changes it had made to rules for next week's referendum on a new constitution. The United Nations had criticized the changes as unfair to Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, which had threatened to boycott the vote.

After a brief debate, the assembly voted 119 to 28 to restore the original voting rules for the referendum, which will take place Oct. 15. Only about half of the 275-member legislative body turned up for the vote.

Washington hopes a majority "yes" vote in the referendum will unite Iraq's disparate factions and erode support for the country's bloody insurgency, paving the way to eventually begin withdrawing foreign troops.

Sunni Arabs are campaigning to defeat the constitution at the polls, but U.S. and UN officials want them to participate in the vote. They hope that restoring the original rules will avert a Sunni boycott of the referendum, which would have deeply undermined the credibility of the vote and wrecked efforts to bring Sunnis into the political process.

Many Sunnis oppose the charter and want it rewritten, believing it would divide Iraq and leave Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north with virtual autonomy and control over Iraq's oil wealth, while isolating Sunnis with little power in central and western areas.

The original rules, now restored, mean that Sunnis can veto the constitution by getting a two-thirds "no" vote in three provinces, even if the charter wins majority approval nationwide. Sunnis have a sufficient majority in four of Iraq's 18 provinces.

On Sunday, Iraq's Shiite- and Kurdish-controlled parliament effectively closed that loophole with their rule change. The legislature decided that a simple majority of those who cast votes means the constitution's victory -- but that two-thirds of registered voters must cast "no" ballots in three provinces to defeat it.

That interpretation had raised the bar to a level almost impossible to meet. In a province of 1 million registered voters, for example, 660,000 would have to vote "no" -- even if that many did not even come to the polls.

Sunnis were infuriated, accusing the Shiite-led government of fixing the rules to guarantee a victory. The UN said the change was a violation of international standards.

In behind-the-scenes negotiations Tuesday, UN and U.S. officials pressed Iraqi legislators and government officials to reverse that change.

The parliament did so in Wednesday's vote. The deputy speaker, Hussein al-Shahristani, said the parliament now agreed that the word "voter" throughout the election rules meant someone "who did really cast his vote in the referendum" -- both for the purposes of passing the referendum or for getting the two-thirds threshold needed to defeat it.

"The government is completely keen to make the constitutional process legitimate and of high credibility and we are concerned about the success of this process rather than the results of the referendum," government spokesman Laith Kubba said after the vote.

Now, officials are racing to prepare for the crucial vote less than a week away. On Monday, UN officials began distributing 5 million copies of the constitution to voters across Iraq.

The UN mission in Iraq said Tuesday that it had delivered more than 2 million kilograms of ballots, polling boxes and voter screens.

Sunni participation, however, is also tied to security in the central provinces where they are concentrated and where the Sunni-led insurgency is at its strongest.

The location of polling stations has not been announced in Anbar province for fear they will be attacked, although officials are promising to flood the media with their locations just before the vote so residents know where to go.

The U.S. military is waging two major offensives in Anbar -- one at the Syrian border and another around Hadith, about 225 kilometers northwest of Baghdad -- to drive out militants of al-Qaida in Iraq. Commanders are promising to finish the assaults in time for the voting to allow residents to go to the polls.

 A suicide car bomber killed at least 14 people and wounded about 40 outside a mosque in Hillah, south of Baghdad, on Wednesday as Shiite worshippers were gathering for the start of the holy month of Ramadan, police sources said, Reuters reported.