Large Turnout for Iraq Constitution Vote

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
By LEE KEATH - Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD, Iraq - (AP) Sunni Arabs voted in surprisingly high
numbers on Iraq's new constitution Saturday, many of them hoping to defeat
it in an intense competition with Shiites and Kurds over the shape of the
nation's young democracy after decades of dictatorship. With little
violence, turnout was more than 66 percent in the three most crucial
The constitution still seemed likely to pass, as expected. But the
higher-than-forecast Sunni turnout made it possible the vote would be close
_ or even go the other way _ and cast doubt on U.S. hopes that the charter
would succeed in luring Sunnis away from the insurgency.
Washington hopes the constitution will be approved so Iraqis can
form a permanent, representative government and the 150,000 U.S. troops can
begin to withdraw.
"The constitution is a sign of civilization," Prime Minister Ibrahim
al-Jaafari said after casting his ballot. "This constitution has come after
heavy sacrifices. It is a new birth."
In Baghdad, men counted votes by lanterns because the electricity
was out. Results were written on a chalkboard. Outside, Iraqi soldiers
huddled in a courtyard, breaking their fast. Northeast of the capital, in
Baqouba, men sat around long tables, putting "yes" votes in one pile and
"no" votes in another.
The country's Shiite majority _ some 60 percent of its estimated 27
million people _ and the Kurds _ another 20 percent _ support the
approximately 140-article charter, which provides them with autonomy in the
northern and southern regions where they are concentrated.
The Sunni Arab minority, which dominated the country under Saddam
Hussein and forms the backbone of the insurgency, widely opposes the draft,
convinced its federalist system will tear the country into Shiite and
Kurdish mini-states in the south and north, leaving Sunnis in an
impoverished center.
Last-minute amendments to the constitution, adopted Wednesday,
promise Sunnis the chance to try to change the charter more deeply later,
prompting one Sunni Arab group _ the Iraqi Islamic Party _ to support the
In the south, Shiite women in head-to-toe veils and men emerged from
the poll stations flashing victory signs with fingers stained with violet
ink, apparently responding in mass to the call by their top cleric to
support the charter.
But in Sunni regions _ both in Baghdad and several key heavily Sunni
provinces _ the high turnout seemed to consist largely of Iraqis voting "no"
because of fears the charter would set in stone the Shiite domination they
A day that U.S. and Iraqi leaders feared could become bloody turned
out to be the most peaceful in months.
Insurgents attacked five of Baghdad's 1,200 polling stations with
shootings and bombs, wounding seven voters. The only deaths reported were
those of four Iraqi soldiers killed by roadside bombs far from a polling
sites, and there were no major attacks reported as U.S. and Iraqi forces
clamped down with major security measures around balloting sites.
Overall turnout was about 61 percent and surpassed 66 percent in
seven of Iraq's 18 provinces, including key Sunni Arab-majority ones,
according to initial estimates, election officials said Saturday.
Some 250 election workers in Baghdad were starting to compile the
ballots, collecting the summarized results and ballot boxes from around the
country to count. So far, only materials from areas close to the capital
have arrived, and no results were expected Saturday night, said Farid Ayar
of the Independent Elections Commissions of Iraq.
"Initial estimates are that the turnout is no less than 61 percent,"
said Abdul-Hussein Hindawi, another senior IECI member said.
More than 66 percent of voters cast ballots in the three crucial
provinces that could decide the vote _ Salahuddin, Diyala and Ninevah, each
of which has a Sunni majority but also significant Shiite or Kurdish
populations, Ayar said.
Sunni opponents are hoping to get a two-thirds majority "no" vote in
these provinces, which would defeat the constitution.
Other provinces with a similar rate of participation were Baghdad
and Tamim _ with mixed Sunni, Kurdish and Shiite populations _ and the
overwhelmingly Shiite provinces of Babil and Karbala, in the south.
Most provinces in the mostly Shiite south and the three provinces
that make up the autonomous area of Kurdistan in the north had turnout rates
between 33 and 66 percent, Ayar told a Baghdad press conference soon after
polls closed Saturday evening.
Fewer than 33 percent of voters cast ballots in the southern Shiite
province of Qadissiyah, he said. He did not give specific figures for any
The figures suggested a somewhat higher enthusiasm for voting in the
mixed provinces than in the heartlands of Iraq's Shiite majority and Kurdish
minority, where approval of the constitution was all but assured.
There was no information on turnout in Anbar, the vast western
province that is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab and is the main battlefield
between U.S.-Iraqi forces and the insurgents, Ayar said.
Anbar's largest city, Fallujah, saw thousands voting on Saturday.
But in other towns and cities, where fear of insurgent retaliation was
higher, almost no one was seen going to the polls.
The Bush administration sees success in the election as key to
defeating the Sunni-led insurgency.
"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," Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice told reporters as she flew from Moscow to London.
"That's been our principal concern, that the Iraqis have this
opportunity to go and voice their views on this constitution. That's the way
this was set up ... and that's what they are doing," Rice said.
President Bush, who taped his weekly radio address on Friday before
the voting, said Iraqis who participated in the vote would strike a blow
against terrorism.
"This weekend's election is a critical step forward in Iraq's march
toward democracy, and with each step the Iraqi people take, al-Qaida's
vision for the region becomes more remote," the president said in the
address aired Saturday.
The Sunni Arab turnout was a dramatic change from January's
parliamentary election, which most Sunnis boycotted. Now they were eager to
cast ballots.
"This is all wrong. I said 'no' to a constitution written by the
Americans," said Jilan Shaker, 22, a laborer who showed up at an Azamiyah
polling station in shorts and plastic sandals.
In the crucial northern city of Mosul, there was a constant flow of
voters all day long into a kindergarten in a Sunni Arab neighborhood: men
and women, dressed at their best in suits and ties or neatly pressed veils,
many carrying young children in holiday clothes.
"The government can't just sew together an outfit and dress the
people up by force. We do not see ourselves or see our future in this
draft," Gazwan Abdul Sattar, 27-year-old Sunni teacher, said after voting
As polls closed at 5 p.m. in Iraq's 6,100 polling stations, many
rounds of gunfire were heard in celebration. People were seen in some
streets of Baghdad handing out sweets ahead of the end of the day's Ramadan
In a mostly Kurdish neighborhood of Mosul, Bahar Saleh supported the
"This constitution will at last give the Kurds their lost rights,"
the 34-year-old housewife said, coming from the polls with the red-and-green
Kurdish flag wrapped around her body.
In the south, the heartland of Iraq's Shiites, some Shiite cities
reported a higher turnout than the January vote. Top cleric Grand Ayatollah
Ali al-Sistani had urged his followers to turn out and support the charter.
"Today, I came to vote because I am tired of terrorists, and I want
the country to be safe again," said Zeinab Sahib, a 30-year-old mother of
three, one of the first voters at a school in the mainly Shiite neighborhood
of Karrada in Baghdad.
"This constitution means unity and hope."
Overall national turnout in the January elections was 58 percent,
but only 2 percent of the eligible voters cast ballots in Anbar province.
Turnout was also low in the Sunni Arab provinces of Ninevah and Salahuddin.
American troops in Humvees rattled down Baghdad streets in patrols,
while Iraqi soldiers and police ringed polling stations at schools and other
public buildings protected by concrete barriers and barbed wire.
Iraqi soldiers armed with heavy machine guns looked over polling
sites from nearby rooftops. U.S. troops in tanks and armored vehicles stood
not far away as helicopters hovered overhead. Driving was banned to stop
suicide car bombings by insurgents determined to wreck the vote.
The polls opened at 7 a.m., just hours after government workers
restored power lines that insurgents sabotaged in the north Friday night,
plunging the Iraqi capital and surrounding areas into darkness.
In the central Baghdad area of Khulani, where Sunnis and Shiites
both live, a steady stream of voters entered a large polling station after
being searched three times.
They included old men and women who could barely walk with canes,
and young mothers wearing chadors and carrying infants. Other voters wore
baggy traditional Kurdish dresses, and some youths were dressed in jeans.
After placing the ballots in the plastic boxes at the polling
centers, the Iraqis had the forefinger of their right hands marked with
violet ink to prevent repeat voting.
In Sadr City, a mostly Shiite area of Baghdad controlled by radical
cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who led uprisings against the U.S.-led coalition
last year, people were widely expected to vote "yes."
Not Haitham Aouda Abdul-Nabi, a 23-year-old co-owner of a
convenience store. When he showed up at a Sadr City secondary school to
vote, he said: "More than 90 percent of Iraq's Shiites support the
constitution, but not me."
Why? Because he is tired of the chaos that has followed Saddam's
ouster: killings by insurgents, fighting between rebels and U.S. troops,
squabbling in Iraq's mostly Shiite and Kurdish government, and nearly daily
power outages in the capital.
"Only force can bring results with a people like us in Iraq," he
said. "Unfortunately, we need someone like Saddam. This government is too