Verdict on the Constitution: Iraq Goes to the Polls

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In Mosul, voters line up to vote in the constitutional referendum under the eyes of the U.S. infantry

Iraq went to the polls on Saturday and, after 19 violent days that saw more than 450 Iraqi civilians killed, Baghdad was relatively calm for the vote. The quiet may be an indication that the draconian security measures that banned almost all vehicular traffic, international travel and movement between provinces were effective in curbing insurgents' attacks. Still, the night before the vote, insurgents sabotaged an electrical tower, plunging the city and northern towns into darkness. There were also reports of gun battles between insurgents, on one hand, and U.S. and Iraqi troops in Ramadi and other western towns Saturday, causing voters to stay away from the polling booths. In the capital, however, there were attacks by gunmen at only four polling stations and a few ineffectual mortars. By 5 p.m., when polls closed, there were few reports of deaths. One incident surfaced of an insurgent raid on a polling station in the Abu Ghraib neighborhood. The attackers killed the supervisor there and made off with five boxes of ballots. Nevertheless, the day was still in marked contrast to the January election, which saw more than 100 attacks, including suicide bombings, killing at least 40 people in the capital.

But the giddiness over democracy that accompanied the January poll was gone as well. The subject of their vote was sobering: the proposed permanent Iraqi constitution, a document that supporters say will secure the country's future and unite Iraqis but one that opponents contend will lead to Iraq's dissolution and civil war.

Shi'ites overwhelmingly support the document, in part because of the instructions from the powerful Shi'ite clerical body, the merjariya, led by the venerated Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who called for a "yes" vote on the document. This was clear from talking to voters in the Shi'ite areas. However, because of security restrictions, TIME reporters were unable to visit Sunni neighborhoods where attitudes toward the constitution differed from Shi'ites'. Residents of these areas, reached by phone said there were many people in the streets ready to vote against the constitution, but these reports could not be independently confirmed. Under the rules of the Transitional Administrative Law, the constitution will pass if a majority of Iraqis vote for it and two-thirds of voters in any three provinces don't vote against it. Sunnis, who make up 20% of Iraq's 27 million people, hold large enough majorities in the provinces of Anbar and Sulahadin. If they turned out in large enough numbers in Ninevah province, there is a chance the constitution may be defeated.

Kanaan Jamil Ibrahim, supervising officer at a polling station in Baghdad's mainly Shi'ite Jadhriyah district said that "the day began quietly, because people are cautious about coming out. They are waiting and watching their TVs, for news of any violence or disturbance. Once they hear that voting is going normally, they will come out." He said that at his polling station, the Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim Boys' High School, there was actually less security this time than on Jan 30. One reason, he said, is that "the Iraqi security forces have learned from the [previous] elections, and are now more strategically positioned--they don't all crowd around one spot." Another lesson from Jan 30: "We learned which neighborhoods are likely to be troublesome, and which are calm--so we deploy security more intelligently." He said the mood among voters was generally upbeat, but not as joyful as in Jan. 30. "That was the first time people had voted freely, so it was special," he said. "Now the novelty has worn off."

Nevertheless, Shi'ite voters were enthusiastic. "We are following our supreme merja, Sistani," said Jafar al-Khazali, a 29-year-old day laborer as his daughter, Sou'ad, clung to his leg. "I will not lose my rights again like before." "I am looking forward to seeing my dreams come true," said Khalida al-Bayati, a Shi'ite housewife. "I want to see my country not like it was under Saddam." Al-Bayati holds no nostalgia for the old regime, having lost a child to cancer that she blames on Saddam's use of chemical weapons in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Her faith in the future stems from her faith in God to provide for Iraq. "We are asking Allah day and night to unify our country," she said. A resident of predominantly Sunni Sadiya district of Baghdad said turnout was high in the neighborhood, indicating many Sunnis had come out to vote against the constitution. But even those who voted were cynical. Thafir Aga, 38, a taxi driver in Sadiya, said he voted against the constitution because it "is dividing Iraq." "The government is only Kurdish and Iranian, it is not a Sunni or Shi'ite government." Many Sunnis, who benefited under Saddam's reign, regard the Shi' ites in government as pawns of Iran because politicians such as Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari spent the war in exile in Iraq's neighbor. Aga also had little faith in a fair vote and said the government would fix the election in its favor. "They just want to let the people feel they are practicing democracy," he said.

While Shi'ites and Kurds are united in support of the constitution, Sunnis are split, after a last minute deal on Wednesday to open up the document to amendments four months after the election of a new government in December. This was enough to win over the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the largest Sunni political parties, but it left groups such as the Muslim Clerics' Association and the National Dialogue council fuming at the Islamic Party's reversal. "This is bad for the Iraqis," said Saleh Mutlaq, an influential member of the National Dialogue Council, which includes many former Ba'athists. The move by the Islamic Party is a "betrayal" of all the Sunnis, he said, and hinted that the Dialogue Council would consider excluding them from its fractious coalition of Sunni Arabs when they run for the permanent parliament in December.

With reporting by Aparisim Ghosh, Hussein Hamdi Rajab, As'sad Majid and Yousif Basil