Iraq's Sunnis Register to Vote in Droves

Police officers survey the scene following a car bombing in the southern Iraqi city of Basra that killed 16 people.
Police officers survey the scene following a car bombing in the southern Iraqi city of Basra that killed 16 people. (By Nabil Jurani -- Associated Press)
By Ellen Knickmeyer and Bassam Sebti
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 8, 2005

BAGHDAD, Sept. 7 -- Voter registration soared in some Sunni Arab parts of Iraq as Sunnis mobilized to try to vote down a draft constitution they believe will divide the country, according to figures released Wednesday at the close of registration for the Oct. 15 referendum.

The results of the Sunni registration campaign came on a day of violence in the predominantly Shiite south. Local officials in Basra, the largest city in the region, said a car bombing killed 16 people, including at least two children, news agencies reported.

A roadside bombing in Basra earlier in the day killed four American security contractors who were in the lead vehicle of a convoy of U.S. diplomatic officials. No one else was injured, an official said. While political tensions have been high in Basra, bombings have been rare.

The surge in voter registration in the heavily Sunni west signaled the minority's belated entry into the country's political process. Most Sunnis stood on the sidelines of the Jan. 30 national elections that seated the transitional government, which was charged with drafting the constitution. As a result, Sunnis were left with diminished political leverage in negotiations over the document.

This time, "we registered to defeat the constitution," said Khalid Jubouri, a guard at a government ministry in Fallujah, a city in the volatile western province of Anbar. "This is considered fighting by word and thought. We are optimistic about the battle, and we will win it eventually."

Registration in Anbar swelled from a tiny percentage of eligible adults in January to nearly 85 percent, said Muhammed Ibrahim, the director of voter registration centers in the province.

Ibrahim said about 600,000 of the province's 715,000 eligible adults registered, despite pledges from al Qaeda in Iraq, an insurgent group led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian, that anyone who took part in the voting would become a target for killing.

"It is a big number we didn't expect given the security situation in the province," Ibrahim said. "It is a great number."

Last month, suspected insurgents killed three Sunni activists who were working on voter registration in the northern city of Mosul. Their corpses were draped in a get-out-the-vote banner.

In the predominantly Sunni province of Salahuddin, 722,025 of 1.1 million eligible adults registered to vote, said Isam Hussein Samarraie, the provincial voter registration director. In the January elections, 532,069 people cast ballots there.

In Diyala province, 417,000 of 750,000 eligible adults registered. In January, only 119,000 cast ballots, according to Amir Latif Alyahya, director of the provincial elections commission.

Iraqis who voted in the January elections are automatically eligible to vote in the referendum on the constitution without registering. It was unclear whether the registration figures would be challenged.

If voters approve the constitution on Oct. 15, the country will vote in national elections on Dec. 15 for Iraq's first full-term post-invasion government. If the charter is defeated, Iraqis will vote on Dec. 15 for another temporary government, which would try again to draft a constitution. Defeating the constitution requires a two-thirds rejection in at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces.

Many Sunnis oppose the draft constitution because it would allow the Kurdish north and the heavily Shiite south to form separate, oil-rich regions. The split could leave the center and west with little political power and few resources.

Some Sunni leaders are working to forge an unusual alliance with Moqtada Sadr, a prominent Shiite cleric whose militia twice battled U.S. forces last year.

Sadr called upon his followers this summer to register and then await word from him on whether to vote. The rejection of the charter by his followers, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and by the Sunnis would sink the draft document, some Sunnis say.

"So there is no doubt that many people registered their names in answer to his call," said Abdul Hadi Darraji, a Sadr spokesman in Baghdad. "And now, we await his instructions."

While U.S. and Iraqi leaders have said Sunni acceptance of the political system was essential to ending the Sunni-based insurgency, some leaders say Iraq could enter its most dangerous period yet if the Sunni-led vote against the charter prevailed and political struggle ensued.

Adil Lami, general manager of Iraq's electoral commission in Baghdad, said that he had no national figures for voter registration but that "large enthusiasm" in the heavily Sunni west had led the way in the drive.

In other violence Wednesday, gunmen killed four people at an Iraqi police checkpoint near Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province, officials said.

One person was killed in the Kurdish town of Kalar during a riot over Iraq's chronic water and electricity shortages since the U.S.-led invasion, news agencies said.

Meanwhile, U.S. warplanes bombed a house in an al Qaeda stronghold near the Syrian border, the U.S. military said. Military officials said they believe the airstrike killed a key local al Qaeda figure who helped smuggle foreign fighters into the country.

Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki in Baghdad, Salih Saif Aldin in Tikrit and Hassan Shammari in Baqubah contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company