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As Vote Nears, No Consensus in Iraqi Politics

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

The US military has launched another offensive in western Iraq. There are already a thousand troops targeting villages on the Syrian border. Now another 2,500 are moving against insurgents in a cluster of towns in the Euphrates River Valley.

Meanwhile, the political fighting continues over the country's new constitution. Iraqis will vote on the document in just 10 days. NPR's Anne Garrels has the latest from Baghdad.

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

Overnight, US and Iraqi troops, backed by airpower, surrounded the towns of Hadithah, Haqlaniyah and Parwana. The insurgents laced the entrances with roadside bombs. Three soldiers were killed in explosions. A Marine was killed in a separate incident.

Earlier this summer, US troops had fought insurgents in these towns; 20 Americans were killed. Within days after the assault, militants were back in control of the area. US officials say today's operation is yet another attempt to rout al-Qaeda. They say Hadithah, a city of 75,000, is a launchpad for attacks on Baghdad and Mosul. US vehicles patrolled the streets, calling on people to provide information about the militants, who have imposed a strict version of Islamic law. Troops blew up bridges to block exit routes. However, reports from the area suggest many militants may have escaped before the US troops arrived.

So far neither US nor Iraqi forces have had a prominent presence in these towns. Strapped for units to cover the vast area--the size of Vermont--troops put up temporary checkpoints and then leave. US officers say they hope that as more Iraqis are trained, that will change.

In Baghdad, a car bomb went off at the entrance to the fortified Green Zone, and there was street fighting between insurgents and troops in the south of the capital.

Political wrangling over the constitution continues. Sunni Arab leaders have threatened to boycott the October 15th referendum because of a new interpretation of the rules that will make it impossible for them to defeat it. On Sunday, the parliament quietly decided it would take two-thirds of registered voters in three provinces to kill the constitution instead of two-thirds of actual voters. However, to pass the constitution, the voter is defined differently. Only a simple majority of those who actually cast a ballot are needed.

The UN has stepped in the fray, telling Iraq's Shiite and Kurdish parliamentary leadership the rules change is not acceptable. As a UN official said, `You can't have two interpretations of the word "voter" in the same sentence,' adding that parliament was moving the goalpost at the end of the game. Discussions continue.

Some Sunni Arab leaders oppose the constitution because they fear the provisions for Kurdish and Shiite autonomy in the North and South will leave Sunni Arabs weak in a central region without oil resources. They argue the document will lead to the breakup of Iraq. With less than two weeks to go before the vote, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is trying to get changes to the constitution to make it more acceptable to Sunni Arabs. Officials involved in the discussions say there may be a greater emphasis on Iraqi unity but no fundamental changes. Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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