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Baghdad's Power Is Cut on Eve of Vote

October 16, 2005|Hamza Hendawi | Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD — Insurgents sabotaged power lines Friday, plunging the capital into darkness and cutting off water supplies on the eve of a landmark vote on a constitution that would define democracy in Iraq.

The charter is supported by a Shiite-Kurdish majority. But last-minute amendments, designed to win support among Sunni Arabs, have split ranks of the disaffected minority.

In Friday sermons across the nation, the message from Shiite pulpits was an unequivocal "yes," but it varied in Sunni Arab mosques from "yes" and "no" to "vote your conscience."

Amid security concerns, Iraqis were hunkered down for most of the day in their homes, with the streets of the capital almost empty hours before a 10 p.m. curfew. The country was sealed off from the outside world as borders and airports were closed for Saturday's referendum.

The 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.

The insurgents took out several electrical towers between the northern towns of Kirkuk and Bayji, 150 miles from Baghdad, said Mahmoud Saaedi, an Electricity Ministry spokesman. He could not say how they had been hit.

Power appeared to be returning slowly to the capital. The blackout was not expected to affect the balloting because paper ballots were being used, not machines.

But the sabotage signaled that the insurgents were looking to mar the referendum even amid a countrywide clampdown by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, Sunni-led insurgents have waged a campaign of violence that has killed hundreds, hoping to scare Iraqis away from voting on the constitution.

Rebels detonated a bomb Friday outside the Iraqi Islamic Party's office in central Baghdad, then set fire to the Sunni party's main office in Fallouja. Nobody was injured in what were apparently symbolic attacks against that group's recent decision to support the charter.

Saturday's referendum, a key stop on Iraq's passage to democratic rule that the U.S. hopes will pave the way for withdrawing foreign troops, takes place as American and Iraqi forces battle an enduring Sunni-led insurgency in Baghdad and areas to the west and north.

"Besides Allah, we need this constitution to protect us," said Rajha Abdul-Jabar, 49, a Sunni Arab mother of five married to a Kurdish dentist.

"I, my husband and our children will go and vote yes tomorrow," she said in the small convenience store she runs.

Kurds, a sizable ethnic minority that is mainly Sunni, support the charter.

Tens of thousands of Iraqi army troops and policemen formed security rings around the nation's estimated 6,000 polling stations and set up checkpoints on highways and inside cities.

Ratification of the constitution requires approval by a majority of voters nationwide. But if two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces vote "no," the constitution will be defeated.

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