updated 9/22/2005 7:51:57 PM ET 2005-09-22T23:51:57

About 150 clerics and tribal leaders from Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority called for the rejection of the country’s draft constitution in an upcoming referendum, saying Thursday that it would lead to the fragmentation of Iraq.

The local leaders from Iraq’s insurgency-torn Anbar province, the country’s Sunni heartland, gathered for a three-day conference aimed at putting forward their stance ahead of the planned Oct. 15 referendum. It was held in the Jordanian capital for security reasons.

“We urge all the Iraqi people to go to the polls and say no to the constitution,” Sheik Abdul-Latif Himayem, a prominent cleric from the Anbar capital, Ramadi, who organized the conference, told The Associated Press.

“The constitution as it now stands strips Iraq from its Arab identity and instigates racial, religious and political segregation,” he said. “It is a minefield and could never be implemented.”

Sunnis have sharply opposed the draft constitution, largely because it would give Shiites in the south the power to form a mini-state that Sunnis fear will deprive them of oil resources and ultimately lead to Iraq’s fragmentation. Sunni leaders are hoping to defeat the draft in the referendum by gathering a two-thirds “no” vote in at least three provinces.

“No federalism, no for the division of Iraq and no for the constitution,” Sheik Qassem Jassam al-Jumaily, a prominent figure from Fallujah, said in a speech to the gathering.

Himayem said the conference will call for national peace and reconciliation “to avoid civil war.”

He accused the Shiite-led government of worsening the sectarian divide in Iraq by carrying out “unjustified” arrests in Anbar, where the insurgency has been centered.

Sunnis have increasingly complained of being hard hit in the crackdown by U.S. and Iraqi forces against the insurgents — most of whom come from among the Sunni population. U.S. and Iraqi troops have launched full-scale assaults on a number of Sunni cities to root out militants.

At the opening session of the conference, Sheik Amash al-Obeidi, an Anbar tribal leader, urged the United Nations and the Arab league “to intervene to protect our cities and towns and to stop the flagrant violation of human rights there.”

Al-Obeidi called for “a unified position against the government’s threats to carry military operations in the region. We vow to consolidate the security in our region.”

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