Sunni Bombs and Guards Greet Iraq Vote

Women in the northeast city of Baqubah walk past posters advertising today's referendum on the proposed constitution. Many women say that their lives have deteriorated since the U.S.-led invasion and that they anticipate no improvement if the charter is approved. Story, A14
Women in the northeast city of Baqubah walk past posters advertising today's referendum on the proposed constitution. Many women say that their lives have deteriorated since the U.S.-led invasion and that they anticipate no improvement if the charter is approved. Story, A14 (By Jorge Silva -- Reuters)
By Ellen Knickmeyer, Steve Fainaru and Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 15, 2005

BAGHDAD, Oct. 14 -- Iraq's Sunni Arab minority made a violent reentry into politics Friday, bombing offices of a political party that urged support for a new U.S.-backed constitution while posting insurgents and tribal fighters at some polling places to ensure that Sunni voters could vote safely Saturday against the proposed charter.

Approval of the charter in the referendum, which would open the way for Iraq to be remade as a loose federation under expanded religious authority, appeared almost certain despite strong Sunni opposition. Members of the country's Shiite Muslim majority and their Kurdish political allies overwhelmingly support the proposed constitution, which was drafted by leaders of their own political parties. At the same time, many Iraqis, confused and alienated by last-minute revisions, say they will vote neither for nor against a charter that almost no one has seen in its final form.

In part of a referendum-eve blitz on state-funded television to drum up turnout, President Jalal Talabani promised a true coalition government if Sunni Arabs turned away from their two-year-old insurgency and joined in the political process Saturday. "Ever after, Iraq will be unified and strong, an independent and prosperous nation in which all people enjoy freedom and equal rights," said Talabani, an ethnic Kurd.

Sunni Arabs, who account for an estimated 20 percent of Iraq's population, have largely boycotted politics since the fall of President Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated Baath Party in April 2003. But the referendum has both galvanized and divided the disaffected minority.

[Voting began at 7 a.m. Saturday amid extraordinarily tight security across the country. Private vehicles were banned from all streets.

[In the capital, voters began trickling from their homes toward polling stations shortly after a nighttime curfew was lifted. Iraqi television showed live pictures of Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari casting ballots at a polling center inside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone. Meanwhile, streets were empty in Tikrit, a Sunni stronghold about 90 miles north of Baghdad and the home town of Hussein. About 20 Iraqi policemen responsible for guarding a polling station in the town were the first to vote there.

["I voted no," said Lt. Col. Amir Abdul Karim. "This constitution was written by the occupation and will never change anything in the country."

[In the southern city of Najaf, policemen outnumbered pedestrians by about 10-to-1. More than two dozen people lined up outside a girls school, waiting for election monitors to let them in, before streaming toward cardboard voting kiosks.]

Throughout the day Friday, bombs in Baghdad and western towns tore through offices of the leading Sunni political party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, which formally broke with most other Sunni groups Thursday to call for the draft's approval.

While the attacks were going on, branches of the party in the west announced they were splitting with the headquarters in Baghdad. In Fallujah, crowds gathered around an Iraqi Islamic Party office set ablaze by guerrillas from Abu Musab Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq movement, chanting "No!" to the constitution.

At the main Sunni mosque in the largest western city, Ramadi, fistfights broke out between supporters and opponents of the draft charter.

Overnight, families who live near polling centers in the Sunni-dominated west packed up and fled after two days of bomb attacks on the voting sites by insurgents. "I fear what will happen Saturday," said Emad Ahmed, head of one of a dozen families who evacuated one neighborhood in Ramadi on Friday.


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