Polls Close in Iraq

By John Ward Anderson and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 15, 2005; 1:09 PM

BAGHDAD, Oct. 15 -- Millions of voters in Iraq ignored the threat of attack and cast ballots Saturday in a constitutional referendum that was remarkably calm, with isolated insurgent attacks on polling stations and sporadic clashes with U.S. Marines west of Baghdad, but no major bombings or mass killings.

As the polls closed at 5 p.m. after 10 hours of voting, it appeared that the worst violence of the day occurred in Ramadi, an insurgent and Sunni Arab stronghold about 55 miles west of the capital, where firefights between militants and U.S. soldiers forced three of the city's main polling centers to close shortly after opening at 7 a.m. Hospital officials said that at least seven people seeking to vote were killed by insurgents.

The continuous crackle of gunfire kept streets there empty and lead to a 10 percent voter turnout, said Ammar Rawi, manager of electoral commission in Ramadi, who added that most of the "turnout came from the outskirts of the city."

Insurgents also attacked five of Baghdad's 1,200 polling stations with shootings and bombs, wounding seven voters, the Associated Press reported, and six Iraqi soldiers were killed in a bomb blast north of Baghdad and a mortar attack south of the capital, according to Reuters news service.

But the vote was surprising quiet compared to legislative elections in January, when at least 44 people were killed in nine separate attacks on polling centers.

This time, with a few exceptions, insurgent threats to kill voters did not materialize, allowing scores of people to vote on a proposed constitution that would increase the role of Islam in the government and formalize Iraq's democracy. Turnout was described as exceptionally high in Sunni Arab regions that had largely boycotted January's election. Voting in Shiite and Kurdish neighborhoods was brisk, but appeared lower than in January, when about 58 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

Sunni leaders sent conflicting messages to their followers about whether to vote in today's referendum. That confusion and insurgent threats to target voters led to uncertainty about whether Sunnis would turnout en masse to cast ballots.

But according to U.S. Army officials in Salah Aldin, an overwhelmingly Sunni province north of Baghdad, by 11:30 a.m., more than 33,000 had already voted in the town of Baiji, 22,000 in Awaj, 17,000 in Tikrit and 20,000 in Samarra. Voting in Samarra was so heavy that polling places ran out of ballots in the early afternoon, officials said, and more were brought in under U.S. support.

Sunni voters in the area interviewed by reporters were nearly unanimous in saying that they had voted against the constitution, which many Sunnis believe is deeply flawed.

In Tikrit, the home town of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, about 20 Iraqi policemen were the first to vote at a polling station they were responsible for protecting.

"This constitution was written by the occupation and will never change anything in the country," police Lt. Col. Amir Abdul Karim said, explaining his no vote.

Elsewhere in town, Iraqi Army Lt. Mahmoud Nadhum urged his colleagues to reject the charter "because it calls for separation and sectarianism," he explained to a reporter. "We don't want this constitution because we want a unified Iraq."

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