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Late push underway for Sunni support

Sides still far apart on Iraqi charter issues

BAGHDAD -- With US mediation, Shi'ite Muslim and Kurdish officials negotiated with Sunni Arab leaders yesterday over possible last-minute additions to Iraq's proposed constitution, trying to win Sunni support ahead of next weekend's crucial referendum.

But the sides remained far apart over basic issues -- including the federalism that Shi'ites and Kurds insist on, but that Sunnis fear will lead an eventual breakup of the country. And copies of the constitution were already being distributed to the public.

Although major attacks in the insurgents' campaign to disrupt the referendum have waned in recent days, violence killed 13 Iraqis yesterday.

In one attack, masked gunmen in police commando uniforms burst into a school in the northern town of Samarra, pulled a Shi'ite teacher out of his classroom, and shot him dead in the hallway as students watched from their desks, police said. A suicide car bomb killed a woman and a child in the southern city of Basra.

A US Marine was killed by a roadside bomb in the town of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, on Saturday, the military announced. It was the ninth American death during a series of offensives waged in western Iraq seeking to knock Al Qaeda militants and other insurgents off balance and prevent attacks during the national vote on the constitution on Saturday.

The death brought to 1,953 the number of US military personnel who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Interior Minister Bayan Jabr said the number of foreign militants involved in Iraq's insurgency had fallen to about 900, from as many as 3,000 three months ago. Their ranks have fallen because of deaths inflicted by US and Iraqi military offensives -- but also because Al Qaeda in Iraq has started sending fighters to other Arab nations to build terror networks there, Jabr said in an interview with the Arab daily Sharq al-Awsat.

As Sunni-led insurgents staged attacks to discourage Iraqis from voting in the referendum, the government launched a campaign to persuade Iraqis to go to the polls despite the threats -- and despite calls by some Sunni Arab leaders for a boycott.

''We think [a boycott] would weaken Iraq because the only way that Iraq can recover is done by concentrating on the political process, writing the constitution, and participating in it," government spokesman Laith Kubba said. ''Any act that calls for violence or boycotting would deviate the country from its course."

Many Sunni Arab leaders are urging their followers to turn out in force to vote in the referendum -- but to vote ''no" to defeat a draft they say will break Iraq into pieces, with Shi'ite and Kurdish mini-states in the north and south and the Sunni minority left poor and weak in a central zone.

Though a minority, Sunnis can defeat the charter if they garner a two-thirds ''no" vote in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces -- and they have the potential to make that threshold in four provinces. But turnout is key, since they must outweigh Shi'ite and Kurdish populations in some of those areas.

Even with copies of the official text of the constitution being distributed to voters to consider, all sides were debating last-minute changes in a bid to swing some Sunnis to a ''yes" vote. Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani met with Sunni Arab leaders over the weekend trying to convince them on the changes, officials from all sides said.

The United States is eager to see the passage of the constitution, since its rejection could prolong Iraq's political instability.

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