- The Washington Times - Friday, October 14, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraqi police guarded polling stations and ballot boxes yesterday in 24-hour shifts to protect the nation from terrorists who have vowed to attack voters in today’s national referendum on a constitution.

Terrorists blew up a large water pumping station and destroyed a power station, plunging much of Baghdad into darkness except for generator-powered buildings.

By nightfall, only police vehicles could be seen on the city’s deserted streets.

Terrorists also took out their rage on Sunnis who had decided to participate in the vote, bombing buildings of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group that broke ranks and urged Iraqis to vote “yes,” the Associated Press reported.

Iraqis are being urged by various political and religious leaders to vote either for or against the country’s draft constitution, or to boycott the process altogether.

One Western official said the success of the referendum would be the Iraqis’ belief in the effectiveness of the political process, measured in “voter participation and enthusiasm.”

“If people believe by voting, they can change government policy and don’t need a gun or to stand up a militia,” things would change, the official said.

“As long as the vote is perceived of as credible — that is a huge achievement.”

But turnout still depends a lot on security. Iraqi military and security forces are responsible for protecting polling stations and neighborhoods, with U.S. forces available for backup.

Polling stations were to open at 7 a.m. today and close at 5 p.m.

In Muqtadiya, part of the infamous Sunni Triangle, Iraqi police and Iraqi soldiers from the Tiger Battalion took a break from their patrols to cast their ballots, only to have violence strike hours later.

Terrorists using a bomb buried in the road killed two Iraqi soldiers and wounded three in the nearby village of Dali Abbas.

“There are no happy people here,” said Sgt. Mahsen, who like most Iraqi soldiers uses only one name to protect his family from reprisal attacks by terrorists.

“Someone doesn’t want freedom and democracy in Iraq. They killed two of my friends,” Sgt. Mahsen said.

In Baghdad, police coordinated not only with military forces but also with security companies to keep voters safe.

“We are working together and everyone is offering help,” said one Baghdad police captain from a heavily Sunni neighborhood. “There may be some trouble, but politically we will make a lot of progress Saturday.”

Analysts and Western officials are hoping that the hard-won amendments to the constitution approved late in the week will give some incentive to Sunnis to get out and vote, both today and in Dec. 15 National Assembly elections.

The changes will allow for Sunnis — who felt largely disenfranchised from the constitution-writing process — to take steps to amend the charter under the next national assembly.

“There was an anxiousness among the Kurds and Shi’ites to avoid a really radical split among the communities, and some concern that the referendum might reject the draft,” said the Western official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq said it had set up more than 6,000 voting centers nationwide, trained some 200,000 polling station workers and delivered 4.5 million pounds of election material across Iraq.

“This is a historic day for Iraq,” said commission chief Adil al-Lami. “This referendum represents a major step towards a democratic Iraq.”

Iraq has declared a holiday for the four days, from Thursday through tomorrow. Airports have been shut down, land border crossings closed and a nighttime curfew imposed.

“The key is to convince a critical mass to keep participating even if they vote ‘no’ and lose in the referendum,” said A. Heather Coyne of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Maya Alleruzzo contributed to this report from Muqtadiya, Iraq.

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