Iraq's industry minister predicts Iraqis will say no to constitution

Iraq's industry minister, one of his country's top Sunni Arabs, predicted Friday that voters at this weekend's historic referendum will reject the draft constitution despite amendments designed to win Sunni Arab support.

"If the Iraqis are given the opportunity to vote freely, they will say no," Industry Minister Osama al-Najafi said during a visit to Malaysia. "The constitution does not represent the aspirations of all Iraqi people. ... I think the constitution will not be passed."

Several amendments to the document adopted Wednesday by Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers were "not enough to rectify the constitution," al-Najafi told reporters.

Sunnis account for only 20 percent of Iraq's 27 million people, but they have the majority in at least four of Iraq's 18 provinces. If two-thirds of voters in any three provinces reject the charter Saturday, the constitution will fail.

The last-minute changes to the draft constitution does not meet all of the Sunni demands, primarily for a clear assertion of Iraq's Arab identity and a reduction of wide powers accorded to provincial governments that Sunnis say could lead to Iraq's breakup, the AP says.

If the charter is adopted, a general election will be held in two months to elect a full-term parliament. If it is defeated, an election will still be held in December but only for another interim chamber that will try again to draft a charter.

Al-Najafi, who was on a three-day visit to Malaysia to discuss bilateral cooperation, said Iraq was "facing a critical situation (and) needs support from friendly countries and the Islamic community so as to maintain its ... sovereignty and unity of its land."

Malaysia, which currently chairs the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, plans to increase investment in Iraq in areas such as banking and finance, agriculture and health, Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said after a meeting with Al-Najafi.

Iraq wants Malaysia to be involved in its reconstruction and recognizes its ability to do so, Syed Hamid said, adding that officials from both sides will meet in Iraq in three months to hammer out specific measures.

Syed Hamid downplayed the possibility that some Malaysian businesses might hesitate to invest in Iraq because of the persistent violence and instability there.

"The element of risk is always there," he said. "You must make your bid and not wait for everything to be OK, then you want to come in. By that time, it is too late."

Malaysia's trade with Iraq, mainly comprising car exports, totaled US$215.8 million (Ђ179.3 million) in 2004, up sharply from US$12.5 million (Ђ10.4 million) the previous year.


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