BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. and U.N. officials urged the Shiite-led government Tuesday to reverse last-minute changes to voting rules for a referendum on Iraq's new constitution and head off a threatened Sunni boycott.
The crisis emerged less than two weeks before the Oct. 15 vote and just a day after the U.N. began distributing 5 million copies of the constitution to voters.
The United Nations (search) sharply criticized the changes — which make it nearly impossible for the Sunni minority to defeat the charter at the polls — and warned that they violate international standards.
Sunni Arab leaders are opposed to the draft constitution that Washington hopes will unite Iraq's disparate factions and erode support for the country's bloody insurgency, paving the way to eventually begin withdrawing foreign troops.
But a boycott by the minority would deeply undermine the credibility of the vote and wreck efforts to bring Sunnis into the political process.
Iraq's Shiite-dominated parliament passed the new rules on Sunday, effectively closing the loophole that would have given the minority a chance of vetoing the constitution by getting a two-thirds "no" vote in three provinces even if it wins majority approval nationwide. Sunni Arabs have a sufficient majority in four of Iraq's 18 provinces.
The new interpretation of the rules declares that two-thirds of registered voters must vote "no" — not two-thirds of those who actually vote. The interpretation raises 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 didn't even come to the polls.
The United Nations cried foul. "Ultimately, this will be a sovereign decision by the Iraqis, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in New York. "That being said, it is our duty in our role in Iraq to point out when the process does not meet international standards."
U.N. officials were meeting with members of parliament to reverse the change, Dujarric and Iraqi officials said.
"The decision will be amended depending on what we reach in agreements with the United Nations, Abbas al-Bayati, a Shiite Turkomen lawmaker on the constitutional commission, told The Associated Press. "The U.N. is seeking one interpretation for the word 'voters,"' he said.
The Americans were talking separately with the Shiite-led government, said an Iraqi lawmaker, Mahmoud Othman (search), and an official close to the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
In Washington, State Department (search) spokesman Sean McCormack declined comment on the U.S. role except to say that the new rules are a topic of discussion among Iraqi authorities.
A senior State Department official said privately that U.S. diplomats have made clear concerns about the rule change in those discussions.
A new version of the rules could be decided as early as Wednesday, and it would be put to parliament for a new vote, Othman said.
The dispute over the rule changes threatens to deepen disillusionment with the political process among Sunnis, who make up the backbone of the insurgency.
"The aim of this move is to pass the constitution and impose it on everybody regardless of their opinions," said Saleh al-Mutlaq, the main Sunni figure on the commission that drafted the constitution.
He, like other moderate Sunni Arab leaders opposed the final text but had urged followers to go to the polls to vote "no" but threatened to call a boycott over the rule change.
"Boycotting the referendum is a possible option that we are thinking of, because we believe that participating in the voting might be useless," al-Mutlaq said.
Sunnis say the constitution's strong federalist bent will tear Iraq apart into Shiite and Kurdish mini-states in the north and south, leaving the minority weak in a central region without oil resources.
Sunni Arabs boycotted January parliamentary elections, the reason for their minimal representation there and the fact that they intended to vote in the referendum — even if against the charter — granted it legitimacy.
But after the passage of the new rules, Sunnis accused the Shiites of using their dominance to stack the deck against the minority.
"This is fraud aimed at distorting the truth, it aims to foil any effort to bring down the constitution," said Ayad al-Samarraie, a senior official in the Iraqi Islamic Party (search), one of the main Sunni Arab groups.
The controversy centered on the definition of the word "voter."
Election rules in the interim constitution read, "The general referendum will be successful and the draft constitution ratified if a majority of the voters in Iraq approve and if two-thirds of the voters in three or more provinces do not reject it."
The committee decided that while the first reference to "voters" in the clause refers to those who cast votes, the second refers to all those registered to vote.
"There should be one interpretation for the word 'voter,' or else we will appeal over the referendum and its results," al-Samarraie said.
Election officials, meanwhile, were rushing to prepare for the referendum. About 5 million copies of the constitution, printed by the United Nations, arrived Monday in Iraq, and officials began handing them out, said Laura Makdissi, a U.N. official in Baghdad.
So far, distribution — most of which will take place through agents who provide food ration cards — appeared limited. In the major cities of Basra (search), Mosul (search) and Kirkuk (search) and in neighborhoods of Baghdad, residents and rationing agents said they had not seen any copies.
The U.N. mission in Iraq also said Tuesday it has delivered more than 4.4 million pounds of ballots, polling boxes and voter screens.