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In Fallouja, Lining Up to Have Their Say

Turnout is reported to be heavy in a Sunni Arab city recovering from fighting last year. Sentiment seems to be against the constitution.

October 16, 2005|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

FALLOUJA, Iraq — The referendum on Iraq's constitution was important enough to Mufeed Abed Ghafour that he cast not just one, but five ballots.

Ghafour walked into a polling station at Al Asad School on Saturday and cast a ballot for himself, his wife and his three children.

"We all came earlier," he said. "But the crowds were too large. So now I have returned and have brought their ballots for them."

Impassioned election workers openly discussed their views on the proposed charter a few feet away from cardboard voting stands.

Security was dicey. A local election official said there were more than a dozen hand-grenade attacks against Iraqi troops in and around Fallouja, and the day before, someone firebombed a local political party office.

Mistrust of Iraqi security forces runs so deep that local tribes formed their own guard units for polling stations and urged the soldiers to keep away.

And many residents' knowledge of the subject of their votes, a complex document completed only last week by Iraq's National Assembly, was sketchy at best.

This is what a successful election looks like in battle-scarred Fallouja, a predominantly Sunni Arab city where only 7,000 residents out of a pre-invasion population of about 350,000 voted in Iraq's parliamentary elections in January. In the aftermath of a massive U.S. offensive in Fallouja last year, most residents were displaced; most who remained boycotted the vote at the behest of Sunni Arab leaders.

On Saturday, nearly 75% of eligible voters, an estimated 150,000 people, cast ballots in the Fallouja area in a vote relatively unimpeded by violence. The large turnout signaled not only the willingness of a large Sunni Arab community to participate in Iraq's nascent political process but the unwillingness or inability of insurgents to disrupt the vote.

John Kael Weston, a State Department official assigned to Fallouja, said that a large reason for the shift from January's boycott to Saturday's high turnout was the decision of 50 clerics to endorse participation in the referendum.

"We're seeing grass-roots organizations telling people to vote, not necessarily because it's what they want to do, but because they have to do it," Weston said. "They realize that if they don't participate they don't have a lot of other options. They also realize that they made a mistake in January by sitting out the last election."

Like many Falloujans, Anad Aboud, 65, boycotted the January election. Aboud's house was destroyed and three of his sons were killed by Iraqi soldiers, he said, shortly after the worst of the fighting in Fallouja. He said that local clerics had persuaded him to vote.

"This our election, and we have to express our opinions," he said. "The clerics, they told us in their sermons that we should vote."

Although no results were available Saturday, anecdotal evidence suggested that Falloujans would vote heavily against the proposed charter.

"I will vote no because I am against sectarianism," said Hareth Abdul Kareem, a 46-year-old merchant. "Iraq should be one nation. Sunni, or Shiite, or Kurd -- we are all Iraqis."

Many Sunni Arabs had expressed concerns that the proposed constitution opened the door for eventual secession by the predominately Shiite south or the largely Kurdish north.

Last week, however, the Iraqi Islamic Party, a major Sunni Arab political party, agreed to back the constitution in exchange for the chance to renegotiate the document after the next parliament is elected in December.

But the Islamic Party's agreement to support the constitution appeared to have little traction in Fallouja. Unknown attackers firebombed party offices in Fallouja on Friday night, and voters derided the organization for changing its position on the draft constitution.

Rafa Alwan Mahana, 48, a retired teacher, said Fallouja's council of clerics was disappointed by the party's decision. If the party wanted to take a position, he said, "the Muslim community should be asked first. They did this without consulting."

Weston said that heavy participation in the vote had undercut extremist groups.

"You've got the grass roots, the whole community standing up and saying they want to participate in the election process," said Weston, who has been assigned to Fallouja for 18 months. "If you see your neighbors, your relatives, your own people walking down the street to vote, do you want to kill them? Probably not."

Sheik Dhari Abdul Hadi, who is Fallouja's mayor, said that he was less concerned about which way people voted than how many people voted.

"They are going in great and huge numbers and I noticed this morning that they were joining overcrowded lines," Hadi said. "All the voters know their responsibility to their future of this country."

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