A divided Iraq heads to polls

Shiites, Kurds appear ready to OK draft constitution

many Sunnis irate, opposed


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqis began voting early today in a landmark referendum on a draft constitution that could be a key step in the country's passage to democratic rule.

As the polls opened at 7 a.m., a few people were seen walking down empty streets in Baghdad heavily guarded by Iraqi soldiers and police to schools where polling stations were fortified with concrete barriers.

Yesterday, Shiite religious leaders mobilized followers for a major show of support in favor of Iraq's draft constitution, hoping to secure approval of the charter in the face of continued opposition among angry but increasingly divided Sunnis.

Militants attacked five offices of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the prominent Sunni group that agreed to back the charter in exchange for last-minute concessions, including bombing its office in Baghdad and setting fire to its main office in Fallujah. No one was injured in those attacks.

Armed men also launched simultaneous attacks on four polling centers in Baghdad last night and sabotaged power lines feeding Baghdad, leaving much of the capital in darkness on the eve of the referendum.

The widespread power outage hit soon after sundown, when Muslims break their daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan, leaving Baghdad's skyline black except for pinpoints of light from private generators. Water also ran out in homes in some parts of the capital, and water pressure waned.

Power appeared to be returning slowly to the capital overnight. The blackout was not expected to affect today's balloting as paper ballots were being used, not machines.

The referendum today follows months of grueling negotiations among the country's Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds that often centered on the meaning of Iraq as a nation.

Until this week, Sunni Arabs, who were underrepresented in the interim government because of their failure to participate in Jan. 30 parliamentary elections, were set to vote en masse against the proposed charter because they say it mandates a weak central government and fails to uphold Iraq's Arab identity.

But under heavy U.S. pressure, the proposed constitution was amended this week to open a four-month window for more changes next year. That persuaded the Iraqi Islamic Party to support the charter. A smattering of the other Sunnis, including the head of the Sunni endowment, followed suit.

Opponents of the constitution face an uphill battle. They need to muster a two-thirds "no" vote in three provinces. Sunnis dominate three provinces but have a commanding majority in only two. The Iraqi Islamic Party's decision has convinced some to support the constitution, but many other Sunnis call the move a betrayal.

A radical insurgent group, the Army of the Victorious Sect, posted an Internet message calling the leaders of the Iraqi Islamic Party "apostates" and threatened to kill them, Arab satellite TV stations said. At the Abu Hanifa shrine, among the most important Sunni sites in Iraq, worshippers demonstrated before Friday prayers, holding up a banner that said, "No to the constitution. No to the occupation. No to deceiving the people."

Calls for dialogue

Still, Sunni clerics tempered their strident calls for "no" votes with appeals for dialogue and nonviolence.

"Our opinion is to reject the constitution, but in spite of that we must understand the points of view of others," Sheikh Mahmoud Sumaidaii told Friday prayer attendees at the Um Qura mosque, a Sunni place of worship. "But those threatening bloodshed shouldn't do that. We should not consider others infidels just for their opinions and not kill others for their opinions."

Arab nationalists and former Baathists vehemently condemned the Iraqi Islamic Party's support for the constitution, publicly denouncing its leaders as lackeys for the U.S. and predicting Sunnis would ignore their calls to support the draft.

"They came with the occupier, they were carried in by American tanks," said Saddoun Zubaidi, a member of the National Dialogue Council, an Arab nationalist group. "They have no grassroots and have a leadership that is under the control of money and the occupier. The Arabs of Iraq are not going to be deceived by a few people who are known to have worked for outside forces."

Iraqi Islamic Party leaders acknowledged the rifts caused by their change of position but predicted that the damage could be repaired and that Sunni factions would coalesce again in time for new parliamentary elections Dec. 15. "This will not start civil war between the Sunnis, but people will need time to understand the essence of issues and then they will calm down," said Ayad Samaraii, a leader of the party, who blamed the attacks on his group's offices on former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Few Iraqis or Western observers say the charter, crafted largely by Iraq's majority Shiites and Kurds, will be defeated.

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