BAGHDAD, Iraq – Angered by Shiite calls for a federal region, Sunni clerics urged followers Friday to vote against the constitution if it contains measures they believe would divide the country in a dispute that threatened to delay the charter's completion by a Monday deadline.
Also Friday, a U.S. Apache (search) helicopter crashed in northern Iraq, injuring two U.S. forces, and a roadside bomb killed an American soldier in the central city of Tikrit, the military said.
Iraq's three major Sunni organizations appeared to have taken a united stand both for voting and against demands for federalism after they boycotted the Jan. 30 parliamentary elections.
Sunni Arab leaders were responding to a demand by a leading Shiite lawmaker for provisions to allow local Shiite control in the southern and central parts of the country. Sunni Arabs (search) fear they will lose out on oil revenues if the country is split into federated zones.
"We reject it wherever it is, whether in the north or in the south, but we accept the Kurdish region as it was before the war," said Kamal Hamdoun (search), a Sunni member of the committee drafting the constitution. Some Shiite leaders want to replicate the success of Kurdish leaders in the north who govern an autonomous part of the country.
"The aim of federalism is to divide Iraq into ethnic and sectarian areas. We will cling to our stance of rejecting this," Hamdoun said.
The dispute threatened to delay the drafting of a constitution, just three days before a deadline for it to be approved by parliament.
But even if that deadline is met, the Sunnis appeared to be warning that they could still bring down the charter when it is put before voters in an Oct. 15 referendum, which is to be followed by general elections in December.
American officials have pushed hard to keep the political process on track as they consider the process vital to maintaining momentum they hope will undermine the Sunni Arab-led insurgency and pave the way for U.S. and other foreign troops to begin withdrawing next year.
At the Kmeira Mosque in northern Baghdad, about 500 Sunni Arabs gathered to listen to Sheik Ayad al-Izzi, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni Arab political party that has members on the committee drafting the constitution.
"We reject these calls (for federalism) and we look to them with suspicion," he said.
The reaction came a day after Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the country's biggest Shiite party, called for a Shiite federal state during a speech to cheering crowds in the holy city of Najaf. He said it was needed "to keep a political balance in the country" after decades of dictatorship under Saddam Hussein, a Sunni.
Shiites comprise 60 percent of Iraq's 27 million people but were long suppressed by minority Sunnis.
Al-Hakim's endorsement of federalism may have been a last-minute bargaining tactic. The Kurds also have demanded federalism to maintain control over three northern provinces and want authority over Kirkuk, from which thousands of Kurds were expelled by Saddam.
Government officials urged compromise. "Every group is saying that they have stands that they cannot abandon because they are 'red lines' but in the end, everyone is going to make some concessions," presidential spokesman Kamran Qaradaghi said Thursday.
Al-Hakim is close to Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who had been reluctant to support federalism. Although al-Sistani has issued no statement about federalism, those close to the ayatollah said his silence should be interpreted as support.
Sheik Mahmoud al-Sumaidaie, of the influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, told worshippers at Baghdad's Umm al-Qura mosque to register for the upcoming votes because "we are in need to your voice to say 'yes' for the constitution or 'no."'
Some prominent Sunnis have suggested that a decision on federalism should be delayed until a new parliament is elected in December.
The two U.S. service members injured in the helicopter crash were being evacuated in the area of Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, said Staff Sgt. Duane Brown, a spokesman for the 42nd Infantry Division. He said the helicopter crash was under investigation.
In central Iraq, a U.S. soldier assigned to Task Force Liberty was killed Friday in a roadside bombing while on patrol in Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, the military said.
The American casualties came as the death toll among the National Guard and Reserve in Iraq soared to at least 32 in the first 10 days of August, according to a Pentagon count. That total is more that in any full month of the entire war.
In another development, the office of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said members of a Shiite militia raided a house in Baghdad late Thursday and freed four hostages including Syrian and Lebanese citizens.
The men were held in an apartment in Baghdad's northern neighborhood of Shaab, said Amer al-Husseini, of al-Sadr's office in the nearby Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City.
—I raqi soldiers in Mosul killed three insurgents, including one wearing an explosives belt, trying to break into a polling station to be used for the October constitutional referendum, police Col. Khourshid Zibari said.
— A car bomb exploded near a police patrol in southern Baghdad, wounding four people, police Col. Asad al-Ghreiri said.
— Two truck drivers were missing after gunmen attacked their vehicles carrying supplies for a U.S. base on a highway west of Ramadi, police 1st Lt. Mohammed al-Obeidi said.