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Sunnis Join Millions for Iraq Charter Vote

Polling is calm with high turnout in three provinces dominated by the minority, which has opposed the draft as divisive. Kurd and Shiite numbers are low.

October 16, 2005|Richard Boudreaux and Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Sunni Arabs voted in large numbers Saturday in a nationwide referendum on a new constitution, injecting a measure of uncertainty into the fate of the U.S.-backed charter that Iraq's disaffected minority had largely condemned.

As polls closed after 10 hours of balloting that was surprisingly free of insurgent violence, the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq reported a 61% turnout, with higher rates of voting in three of the four provinces where Sunnis are a majority. The large turnout was a reversal of the Sunni boycott of the country's assembly elections in January.

Officials did not announce any returns in the yes-or-no balloting. If two-thirds of the votes in three or more provinces go against it, the proposed constitution will be scrapped.

The Kurds in northern Iraq and Shiite Muslims in the south support the constitution, but election officials said they turned out in relatively smaller numbers to vote on the 140 pages of legal minutiae that few Iraqis had received, much less read.

The outcome hinges on tallies expected as early as today from Sunni-dominated Salahuddin and from Nineveh and Diyala, which have larger minority populations. A "no" vote was a near-certainty in Al Anbar, the overwhelmingly Sunni province at the heart of an insurgency that has racked the country since the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

"This referendum was a challenge for the Sunnis, and they turned out in force to reject it," said Jaber Habib, a Baghdad University political scientist. The constitution's Kurdish and Shiite backers in the rest of Iraq, he added, "were overconfident, so their participation was incomplete."

But some Sunni Arabs leaving the polls in Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province, said they had endorsed the charter, improving its chances there. The northern city has a large Kurdish minority, which is expected to have voted overwhelmingly in favor of the draft.

Approval of the constitution is crucial to moving Iraq's democratic process in step with a U.S. timetable that aims to start withdrawing some American troops next year. If the charter passes, Iraqis will elect a parliament Dec. 15 that will appoint a government to serve four years, replacing the transitional one chosen by lawmakers in April.

President Bush called the vote "a critical step forward in Iraq's march toward democracy." And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised the country's exercise in democracy.

"All that I've seen is pictures on television so far which looks as if the Iraqis are exercising their right -- they are doing so in a peaceful manner, they are doing so enthusiastically," Rice told reporters as she flew from Moscow to London.

Sunnis widely oppose the draft charter because they believe its proposed federal structure will fragment the country into oil-rich Kurdish and Shiite mini-states in the north and south, leaving Sunnis concentrated in the resource-poor center and west. Sunni Arabs make up about one-fifth of Iraq's 26 million people.

"We lost our voice in the last election," said Mohammed Jasser, a 21-year-old clothing salesman in Nineveh province who had joined most other Sunnis in boycotting the Jan. 30 election of the transitional National Assembly. Nationwide turnout for that election was 58%. The assembly then endorsed "a constitution that divides Iraq," he said. "We want to keep Iraq united."

An estimated 9.5 million of 15.5 million registered voters went to 5,855 polling stations in 18 provinces. About 250 polling stations did not open because of technical or security problems, election officials said. The referendum marked an enthusiastic reentry of Sunnis into the political process, facilitated by a de facto insurgent cease-fire during polling and a leading Sunni party's support of the draft.

An election official in Al Anbar attributed what little violence occurred to non-Iraqi militants loyal to Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Homegrown insurgents "were more interested in letting people vote 'no' than in causing any violence," said Saadoun Zubaidi, a Sunni member of the panel that drafted the charter.

Calm prevailed in most cities and towns as entire families strolled hand in hand to polling places and men and boys played soccer in streets cleared by police order of all private vehicles in a move to thwart car bombings.

Iraqi police snipers in black masks were stationed on rooftops and uniformed officers with Kalashnikovs frisked voters outside polling stations protected by concrete barriers and barbed wire. U.S. troops sat in tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles nearby.

There was little of the euphoria and celebration that marked the Jan. 30 vote. But absent too was the fear that hung over voters that day as they risked attacks that claimed 44 lives.

"We need a constitution to rule this country," Alia Fahad, a 52-year-old art teacher, said after voting in Baghdad. "Otherwise, we are ungovernable. We cannot go on like this."

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