- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 16, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraqis turned out in force yesterday — including Sunni Arabs who boycotted the nationwide election in January — to vote “yes” or “no” on a constitution viewed as a bellwether in efforts to build a democracy and stop terrorist attacks.

The day went smoothly with few attacks, from the time whole families began trickling into the polling stations early in the morning until voting ended at 5 p.m.

Officials estimated the turnout as high as 60 percent, slightly higher than the 58 percent of Iraqi voters who braved bombs and gunfire in January to elect a parliament.

“It’s like a party,” said Jenan, a 45-year-old oil engineer, dressed in conservative Muslim garb. “This is very important, because this is about our country, our future.”

She spoke at an elementary school in Baghdad, where special areas set up to search women before voting turned into neighborhood gatherings, full of smiles and laughter.

Children took over the capital’s normally busy streets to play soccer as couples strolled in the surreal quiet to their polling centers, blocked off by razor wire and metal hedgehog fencing.

There was little of the triumphant finger waving — of digits dipped in ink to prevent multiple voting — and euphoria that accompanied the national election in January.

U.S. and Iraqi security forces were out in full force, with Iraqis guarding voting places and Americans providing backup with armed patrols and helicopters swooping overhead.

In Baghdad, except for five minor attacks and some drive-by shootings, all was quiet until a loud explosion echoed over the buildings: three 120-mm rockets landed in the fortified green zone.

“They are just sending a message, a reminder,” said one U.S. security officer working in the city. “It’s like they are saying, ‘We can’t get to you today, but we will be back.’ ”

Many Shi’ites walked out into the hot sun to vote, some women in body-covering black veils, some in jeans and long-sleeved shirts. All appeared to follow the advice of their religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who urged a “yes” vote.

“The constitution is a sign of civilization,” said Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari as he cast his vote in the early morning. “This constitution has come after heavy sacrifices. It is a new birth.”

President Bush, spending the weekend at Camp David, said through a spokesman: “Today’s vote deals a severe blow to the ambitions of the terrorists. A clear message to the world that the people of Iraq will decide the future of their country through peaceful elections, not violent insurgency.”

A key indicator of success or failure of yesterday’s vote will depend as much, if not more, on whether the nation’s Sunni minority cast ballots as the outcome.

Reports from the Sunni city of Fallujah said that thousands of people voted this time, while almost no one voted in January.

Because Sunnis refused to vote in January, they were underrepresented in the elected assembly that chose the constitution-writing committee.

This time, most Sunni leaders urged people to go to polls and vote “no,” hoping to get the necessary two-thirds vote in three provinces that is needed to defeat the constitution — and force the drafting process to begin all over again.

In Baghdad’s wealthy, primarily Sunni neighborhood of Harithiya, one polling station with 2,000 registered names saw about 700 voters, said one of the election officials present.

In other Sunni regions — both in Baghdad and several key heavily Sunni provinces — Sunni Arabs voted in surprisingly high numbers, the Associated Press reported.

The high turnout seemed to consist largely of Iraqis voting “no” because of fears the charter would set in stone the Shi’ite domination they fear, said the AP, which had reporters stationed throughout the California-size nation of 27 million.

Shi’ites make up about 60 percent of the population of Iraq, with the remainder split between Kurds, Sunnis and numerous tiny religious and ethnic groups.

In the central city of Muqtadiya — the hub of a majority-Sunni province northeast of Baghdad — more than 93,000 ballots were cast by the end of the day, officials told a reporter for The Washington Times, who has spent the past month with an Iraqi army battalion.

Although the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq estimated a turnout as high as 60 percent, accounts from people on the ground suggested that the turnout was significant, but lower.

The day was not without incident.

In the area patrolled by an Iraqi battalion based in Muqtadiya, about 50 miles northeast of Baghdad, seven of 63 polling stations were targeted by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. There was little damage, officials said.

An Iraqi army patrol that went in the evening to collect ballot boxes from the nearby village of Himbus was hit by a roadside bomb, leaving one dead and one wounded.

The AP reported that four Iraqi soldiers were killed yesterday by bombs that were placed away from polling sites.

Sunnis fear the heavy Kurdish-Shi’ite influence in the government and in the writing of the constitution.

Kurds and Shi’ites fear that the Americans will pull out, leaving them at the mercy of the Sunni-led insurgency, which controls a vast arsenal left behind by former dictator Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated army.

In the Alawiya neighborhood of Baghdad, the streets were deserted, at peace for the first time in months. Voting went smoothly, said Hanna Edward, but participation was still disappointing.

“It is hot, and there was no motivation. Many people did not even read the constitution,” she said.

Although Mrs. Edward voted against the charter, she praised the chance to have her voice heard.

“Just to vote against was an amazing thing, and very important,” she said. “It was historic, even if it was not everything I hoped for.”

As the sun began to set over Baghdad, polling stations began to close and the razor wire was pulled away. Gunfire once more crackled — at least some of it celebratory — as Muslims broke their daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

Results are expected early this week.

• Maya Alleruzzo contributed to this report from Muqtadiya.

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