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Constitution Is Put Before a Divided Iraq

Millions turn out to vote as Shiite leaders call for a massive show of support. Sunni opposition wavers, but insurgents' attacks flare.

October 15, 2005|Borzou Daragahi and Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Iraqis walked by the millions to vote today as Shiite Muslim leaders mobilized followers for a massive show of support for a draft constitution, despite continued opposition among angry but increasingly divided Sunnis.

Polling stations opened at 7 a.m., hours after insurgents sabotaged power lines in the northern part of the country, plunging the capital into darkness and cutting off water supplies.

Voters ventured early into the streets of Iraqi cities -- guarded by Iraqi security forces who banned private cars -- to schools where polling stations were fortified with concrete barriers against possible attacks by Sunni-led insurgents determined to sabotage the vote.

Police reported one deadly insurgent attack today: a roadside bombing that killed three Iraqi soldiers near the Iranian border a few hours before the polls opened.

"I expect good things for the people for this constitution," said Ali Kadhem Abed, a petite 52-year-old woman wearing a black \o7abaya\f7, after voting in Bayaa, a Shiite district of the capital. "It will bring peace and stability."

In the northern city of Kirkuk, Hamid Abdul Jabbar, a 35-year-old Sunni, said he voted against the charter. "It does not represent the Iraqi Sunnis," he said. "It will lead to the division of Iraq."

President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari were among the first to vote in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, headquarters of a government elected in January and led by a coalition of Shiites and Kurds. Both had urged a "yes" vote.

Many of those casting early ballots voiced enthusiasm over Iraq's second nationwide vote since the ouster of President Saddam Hussein 2 1/2 years ago. Amar Sadhel Kifajy, a Shiite voter in Baghdad, called it a festive occasion, "like a wedding celebration."

"I made sure my whole family came with me, even though they are fasting for Ramadan," Nassera Abaas, a 60-year-old housewife, said amid a heavy turnout in Baghdad's heavily Shiite district of Sadr City. "It's important to taste the freedom we were deprived of for so long."

Sunnis were divided on the charter but turned out in significant numbers in Samarra, Fallouja and other cities that heavily boycotted the January election.

Ahmed Mohammad Mahmoud, a 30-year-old electronics engineer in Samarra, said Shiite leaders who helped shape the document were intent on creating an autonomous pro-Iranian Shiite mini-state in southern Iraq that would "hand Iraq to the Iranians on a gold platter."

"This constitution is for the people who wrote it, not for us," Mohammed Kadhim, a 50-year-old high school teacher, said after voting in Fallouja.

But Mohammed Aboudi, a 38-year-old Sunni in Baghdad, voted for the charter, saying it would lead the country to a more stable democracy, undermine the insurgency and "build a clear future, free of occupation" by U.S. troops.

On Friday, 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. Rebels bombed its office in Baghdad and set fire to its headquarters in Fallouja. No one was injured.

Armed men also launched simultaneous attacks on four Baghdad polling centers Friday night and sabotaged power lines.

Today's vote follows months of grueling negotiations among Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds that were often centered on Iraq's identity as a nation. Until this week, Sunni Arabs, who were underrepresented in the interim government because many refused to participate in the Jan. 30 parliamentary election, were set to vote against the proposed charter en masse because they believe it mandates a weak central government and fails to uphold Iraq's Arab character.

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 sign on. A smattering of other Sunnis followed suit, including the head of the Sunni Endowment, a government agency that looks after the sect's mosques.

Opponents of the constitution, who need a two-thirds no vote in at least three provinces, face an uphill battle. Sunnis constitute the majority in three provinces but are dominant in only two. The Iraqi Islamic Party's decision has persuaded some to support the constitution, but many other Sunnis consider the move a betrayal.

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

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

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