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In Iraqi Swing City, Hope vs. Defiance

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."

But in the eyes of many Balad Sunnis, the dominance of the Americans in the process is unquestionable. "The Americans want the constitution approved," said Sinan Abdel-Wahid, a 35-year-old physician from Thuluyah. "If they want it to pass, regardless of what we do, they will pass it."

Divisions have emerged within the Sunni community over whether to endorse the constitution, with one Sunni party breaking ranks this week and calling for a 'yes' vote following a last-minute agreement between factional leaders in Baghdad. But in many respects, the constitution may be a sideshow to a greater drama. Unresolved are the community's long-standing grievances, the occupation at their center; in some ways, Sunni residents predict, their alienation may deepen regardless of the constitution's fate.

In the nationwide parliamentary election in January, Sunnis largely boycotted the vote, leaving them with scant representation in the National Assembly. A far greater turnout is predicted Saturday. But to many, their vote may be as much a rejection of the American-backed political process as an endorsement. "The Americans want to say we're making a democratic country, a new government, a constitution. They want to say this to their people. They want to showcase their success," said Ali, the doctor.

"The Americans are stuck in the middle of the mud, and they're trying to keep their face clean," added Abdel-Wahid.

Sense of Futility

Unlike in January, when insurgent threats and the boycott kept most Sunnis from the polls, Saturday's vote is being conducted in a somewhat more hospitable climate in Sunni villages, despite the recent bombings. Residents in Aziz al-Balad and Thuluyah said only a handful of threats against voters were posted at mosques, and most were ripped down the next day. In both places, residents said the overwhelming majority planned to cast ballots. But many spoke of futility in the vote itself, saying the election would only underscore their weakness.

"I'm going to be very sad on the day of the referendum," said Awad Mudhir, a 35-year-old resident of Thuluyah. "I will consider it the first day of Iraq's partition." He shook his head. "My sense is that there's no hope after that."

The objection most often voiced by Sunnis is that the constitution's promise of federalism will split Iraq into a Kurdish north, a Shiite south and a center populated by Sunnis and bereft of the country's oil. Others bemoan their lack of political clout and speak darkly of a government dominated by the Americans and led by politicians beholden to neighboring Iran.

"There's no stability. The government has no sovereignty," said Mohammed Ahmed, a 38-year-old accountant at Balad General Hospital, who sat with friends this week. "Only the Humvees and the tanks control the situation."

"A government minister can't do anything," said his colleague, Ahmed Marai, 35. "Even an American sergeant could kick him in the rear, and he couldn't do anything."

The men thumbed their worry beads, forgoing tea as they adhered to the dawn-to-dusk fast of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. "What kind of sovereignty is it that dogs sniff our bags when we pass through checkpoints?" Ahmed asked.

Why would they still vote? they were asked.

"So that history can witness that we said no," Marai answered.

Anger at Americans

One morning this week, a company of American troops arrived in Ishaqi, a garbage-strewn Sunni Arab town near Balad where U.S. forces routinely come under attack. The aim of the operation was to sweep Ishaqi of insurgents ahead of Saturday's vote, which was to be held in a downtown school.

Iraqis were to take the lead, but the Americans arrived unannounced out of concern, U.S. commanders said, that insurgents had infiltrated army and police units. Once the operation began, the town was sealed off; no one was allowed in or out until the Iraqi soldiers, instructed by the Americans, had searched every block, a process that took about three hours. Residents trying to exit Ishaqi were stopped by U.S. soldiers holding M-16 assault rifles. Also blocking their path was a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, its heavy machine gun pointed at the city.

Capt. Jake Dalton, 28, a good-natured West Point graduate from Topeka, Kan., ordered the Iraqi forces to search a wide sandstone house. Knocking on the steel gate, American and Iraqi troops swept into a courtyard where two small girls were playing. One burst into tears and cowered, terrified, behind a tree. The Americans instructed the Iraqi soldiers to gather the rest of the family, all women and children, in one downstairs room while searching the rest of the house.

"They usually respond much better to Iraqi forces coming in," Dalton said.

His uniform drenched with sweat beneath his bulletproof vest, Dalton moved farther down the street, cheerfully greeting children and shopkeepers who stood by tentatively in the blistering heat. "How's it going there, partner?" he said to a boy holding a toy cell phone. He asked some of the Iraqi men whether they planned to vote and where.

"Al-Amil will be good to vote," Dalton assured one man who said he planned to cast his ballot at a polling site near Ishaqi that had been bombed the night before.

"There are people who see the Americans saying go vote, and they'll refuse to vote just for that reason," Mishhin, the doctor from Ishaqi, said the next day. "One-third of the people will refuse to vote simply because the Americans told them to."

The face of the American occupation is most aggressive in Sunni Arab towns and cities like Ishaqi, where insurgents blend seamlessly into the sympathetic populace and raids, arrests and clashes are commonplace. Two years on, the resentments have gained their own momentum, deepening a divide that seems unbridgeable, regardless of intentions. For Sunnis, the fight here is often cast in existential terms: Whatever their pledges, the Americans are determined to deprive the Sunnis of their wealth, power and dignity.

"Here, they only hate the Americans," said Latif Feisal Jannabi, 28, a tribal leader with a degree in English. "Really, when I see them, I get angry. They killed my relatives, arrested my friends, and they destroyed our ambitions. Iraq is the best in the entire world -- in my eyes, at least -- and the Americans have destroyed everything."

Last week, Jannabi's cousin, 22-year-old Ahmed Samarrai, was arrested in his village of Aziz al-Balad and, Jannabi believes, sent to Tikrit. Since 2003, U.S. forces have detained, then released, six of his eight brothers, he said. Jannabi estimated that more than 300 of the village's 3,000 residents have spent at least some time in jail.

"We'll continue to live with our problems: kill or be killed," he said.

U.S. commanders said they consider the village to be a locus of insurgent activity in the Balad area.

Jannabi said he still planned to vote, depending on the instructions of his tribe, clerics and Sunni political leaders. He predicted that turnout in the region would dwarf the paltry results in the January parliamentary elections. "Everyone will vote -- even the women," he said. Although he acknowledged the confusion in the community, he suggested that most would still reject the document.

A Civics Lesson

The Americans are warning Sunnis that if they refuse to participate in the referendum, they will be left further behind in a country now dominated by Shiite religious parties and the two main Kurdish political movements. As he inspected polling sites this week with a quiet Iraqi election official, Petery, 41, a 6-foot-2 former third baseman at West Point, carried that message into Jannabi's village, Aziz al-Balad.

The polling station was located at the Qadriya school, its classrooms filled with girls clad in blue-and-white uniforms, its entrance protected by newly installed canvas receptacles filled with sand. Low-slung concrete barriers designed to prevent car bomb attacks blocked the dirt road leading to the school.

Petery seemed to relish the exchange with teachers, who used the unexpected visit to pepper him with complaints.

The principal, Hamid Habib Mahmoud, asked him how many houses the Americans would provide with potable water.

"I don't provide the water to the people," responded Petery, his M-16 slung over his body armor. "I do the projects that the city government asks me to do. We just provide the money."

A second-grade teacher, Rahim Hassan, asked why more roads had not been paved, why electricity was often unavailable.

"How much do you think those things cost?" Petery said through an interpreter as wide-eyed students watched. "Don't be angry. Talk to your government about what is most important to you."

As Petery said goodbye to the students, he quipped: "Well, they just got their civics lesson for today."

In the courtyard, Petery told the teachers that he sympathized with their concern that the constitution could lead to Iraq's division. But, he said, "the question is what is the best way to go about getting the constitution you want."

"There are three ways you can try to get the constitution you want," Petery continued. "You can use violence, and I think we all agree that that's the wrong way to do it. You can vote no and start the process all over again. Or you can vote yes and say, 'It's not exactly what we want, but it's close.' If you vote yes now, you can then get your people elected and they can help you get the constitution you want. You can change anything in the constitution. It's called an amendment."

"Make your voice heard by votes, not IEDs," Petery said finally, using the military shorthand for improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs.

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