Amid Eerie Quiet, Iraqis Cast Votes On Constitution

More than 60 percent of Iraq's registered voters turn out to determine the course of their war-ravaged nation

October 16, 2005|By LIZ SLY AND AAMER MADHANI | LIZ SLY AND AAMER MADHANI,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- On what turned out to be one of the most peaceful days in Iraq in recent memory, millions of people walked through eerily quiet streets yesterday to vote in a referendum on a new constitution that could unite the country or tear it apart.

Though there were scattered incidents of violence at polling stations, no suicide bombers blew themselves up, no car bombs exploded, and the only two civilians reported killed were shot accidentally by nervous Iraqi security forces guarding voting centers.

The calm was in stark contrast with January's landmark democratic election, when more than 50 people died nationwide in a blitz of bombings that failed to deter voters but left no doubt as to the Sunni-dominated insurgency's determination to undermine the political process.

Also in contrast with January's vote, Sunnis were among the most enthusiastic participants, swarming to polling centers in areas that saw little voting activity the last time around, when embittered Sunnis mostly boycotted the process.

In scenes reminiscent of those in the country's Shiite communities in January, snaking lines formed outside polling centers in the mostly Sunni northern town of Mosul, long regarded as a bastion of insurgent sympathizers where only 17 percent of voters cast ballots in January.

President Bush, spending the weekend at Camp David, said the turnout "deals a severe blow to the ambitions of the terrorists and sends a clear message to the world that the people of Iraq will decide the future of their country through peaceful elections, not violent insurgency," according to spokesman Allen Abney.

U.S. officials are hoping that a successful referendum will rally Iraqis around the political process, take the sting out of the insurgency and hasten the day when U.S. troops can start returning home.

Most Sunnis appeared to be voting "no," however, and it remains to be seen how they will respond if, as is widely predicted, the charter is approved. A no vote of more than two-thirds in three provinces would scuttle the constitution, but it is believed to be unlikely that Sunnis, who represent only around 20 percent of the population, could achieve that.

The Independent Election Commission of Iraq estimated turnout at 61 percent of the 15.5 million registered voters, or 9.45 million, roughly 1 million more than the number who cast ballots in January. Security problems prevented 348 of the 6,200 polling stations from opening, mostly in the Sunni provinces of Anbar and Nineveh.

Early signs suggested that turnout in the Shiite south and in the Kurdish north was lower than in January, indicating that a vigorous campaign by Sunni Arab leaders to get out the Sunni vote had paid off, at least in some areas.

In the holy Shiite city of Najaf, home to the revered Shiite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, voting was sluggish, and there was none of the jubilant scenes that characterized January's voting. In three polling stations visited, 90 percent of the ballots cast were "yes" votes, but turnout averaged only 48 percent.

In the southern Shiite province of Qadisiyah, where 71 percent of registered voters cast ballots in January, turnout was less than 33 percent, the IECI said.

Election officials in Baghdad blamed voter fatigue for the lower turnout at some polling stations in the capital.

"I think that, last time, the determination of people to make it happen was more than now," said Ammar Salim, election coordinator at the Ibn Khattib Primary School polling center in the mostly Shiite Baghdad neighborhood of Jadriyah. "People expect the constitution to pass, so they're saying, `OK, all Iraqis are going to vote yes, so we don't need to go and vote.'"

For at least some Iraqis, the thrill of voting this second time around was undimmed.

"The first time was our first date with freedom," said Shamil Habib, 52, who arrived at a polling station in Jadriyah carrying flowers for the poll workers. "This time we are voting for the unborn children, because this constitution is written for them."

The controversial constitution grants Iraqis rights and freedoms that were unimaginable under the former regime of Saddam Hussein. But so, too, did the constitution in force during the brutal tyranny of his regime.

It also accords a prominent role to Islam in the crafting of the nation's laws, something that has disturbed secularists and women who fear that the civil protections they have enjoyed in the past will be eroded.

"We rejected the former regime. But we were looking for something better," explained Iman Abdul-Satar, a 45-year-old Sunni mother who voted "no" in a Shiite Baghdad neighborhood. "This constitution will not improve women's rights ... and it favors Shiites more than Sunnis."

Sunnis are also disturbed by clauses allowing Iraq's provinces to form semi-autonomous regions, something they fear will result in the separation of the oil-rich Shiite south and Kurdish north from the Sunni Arab provinces of the center.

Brig. Maher Noori, 45, a Sunni traffic police officer casting his ballot in Baghdad, said he was persuaded to vote yes only by a last-minute amendment allowing the constitution to be modified after the next legislature is elected.

If the clauses allowing federalism are not removed, he will vote no when those modifications are put to another referendum next year, he said. "I will vote no to anything that divides the country," he said.

If the constitution is approved, elections for a new government will be held in December, completing Iraq's transition to full democracy.

If the constitution is rejected, Iraq will repeat the cycle of the past year, holding elections for a new transitional National Assembly that will write another draft constitution. Preliminary results are expected by Thursday, the election commission said.

Liz Sly and Aamer Madhani write for the Chicago Tribune.

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