In Iraqi Swing City, Hope vs. Defiance

Capt. Jake Dalton of Kansas walks with the police chief of Ishaqi during a sweep for insurgents in the town near Balad.
Capt. Jake Dalton of Kansas walks with the police chief of Ishaqi during a sweep for insurgents in the town near Balad. (By Steve Fainaru -- The Washington Post)

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By Steve Fainaru and Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 14, 2005

BALAD, Iraq, Oct. 13 -- In a dusty room of Qadriya Elementary School, Lt. Col. Jody L. Petery delivered his message: Sunni Arabs should cast their votes Saturday in a referendum on Iraq's proposed constitution. His skeptical audience had other concerns.

The principal whose school would serve as a polling station accused Petery's forces of detaining innocent civilians. A 13-year-old girl, dressed in a denim skirt, asked why there was no electricity or water in her town. The questions and criticisms multiplied: lawlessness, too few schools, unpaved roads and, in particular, the unrelenting violence that has come to order people's lives.

As Petery was pelted with complaints, his heavily armed men chatted outside in the sunbaked courtyard. Then, out of nowhere, a palm-size rock sailed through the air and struck a battalion sergeant major in the shoulder.

Unfazed by the commotion that ensued, Petery stayed on message: "Have faith," he told the Iraqis.

In the heart of the Sunni triangle, Saturday's vote has laid bare two distinct visions of Iraq. For Iraq's minority Sunni Arabs, the referendum has brought forth the grievances that have fueled their two-year insurgency: their political disenfranchisement and the humiliation of being forced to live under U.S. military occupation. For the Americans who patrol the streets, facing daily bombings and small-arms attacks, the referendum embodies their best hope to stem that insurgency and ultimately withdraw from Iraq.

Many Sunnis here said they would turn out to reject the charter as a way of registering their anger at the American military presence; they vowed that the insurgency would go on, whatever the result. Meanwhile, the task of the Americans is dauntingly complex -- to transfer authority to the Iraqis even as they coordinate an election and continue to fight a war.

"The fight will continue against the Americans, whether we vote yes or no," said Ahmed Mishhin, a 26-year-old physician from Ishaqi, a restive Sunni Arab town near Balad. His colleague, Sami Hassoun Ali, interrupted. "The constitution will only be ink on paper," he said.

Said Petery: "Specifically to the Sunnis, the message has been that there have been Sunni leaders who have forsaken the peaceful process and you see where it's gotten you. We're telling them, 'Come out now and peacefully let your voice be heard on the constitution. But if you get back to just trying to blow things up, you're gonna get left behind.' "

A Crucial State

On the banks of the Tigris River 50 miles north of Baghdad, Balad embodies the currents shaping the referendum. With a population of 80,000 spread across the city and its verdant countryside -- predominantly Shiite in the center and overwhelmingly Sunni outside -- it is one of the largest cities in Salahuddin province, one of the swing states in a region that will decide the constitution's fate. Sunni Arabs, fearing that the constitution will hasten Iraq's partition, need a two-thirds vote in three provinces to defeat the document, drafted largely by Shiite Arabs and Kurds with American oversight. If the constitution can win in Salahuddin, it is virtually assured of approval.

This week, the trappings of the referendum emerged across the region. Posters popped up on walls, calling voting a religious duty. Checkpoints proliferated, snarling traffic. The campaign has already left deep scars in Balad: On Sept. 29, three nearly simultaneous car bombings killed 105 people in an attack the U.S. military believes was aimed at suppressing the Shiite vote. In the Sunni countryside, bombings damaged three polling sites days before the vote. There were no casualties, however, and Iraqis and Americans predict a large turnout.

Despite U.S. efforts to put an Iraqi face on the campaign, the referendum here is fundamentally an American military operation. More than three dozen polling stations in Balad and nearby towns are secured by two-story concrete barriers, built at a nearby U.S. base at a cost of $800,000 and painstakingly installed by American troops. The 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, the unit responsible for security in the area, has mapped out Operation Warpaint Delaware in hour-by-hour detail. The Americans are supervising all aspects of security but taking great pains to stay behind the scenes; Iraqi forces will guard the polling stations and transport the ballots, under the protection of U.S. troops.

At a planning meeting this week, Petery cautioned his men: "If there is a picture taken of our soldiers near a ballot, we're in failure criteria. The big conspiracy theory is that this is a U.S.-run election, so don't feed that theory."


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