Sunni Turnout Is High In Vote on Iraqi Charter

Iraqis in the northern city of Mosul wait in long lines to vote in the referendum on the proposed constitution, drafted largely by Shiite and Kurdish leaders.
Iraqis in the northern city of Mosul wait in long lines to vote in the referendum on the proposed constitution, drafted largely by Shiite and Kurdish leaders. (By Mohammed Ibrahim -- Associated Press)
By Ellen Knickmeyer and Omar Fekeiki
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 16, 2005

BAGHDAD, Oct. 15 -- Sunni Arab voters turned out in force for Iraq's constitutional referendum Saturday as insurgents largely suspended attacks, granting Sunnis a chance to try to defeat the U.S.-backed charter and giving much of the country a rare day of peace that belied the deep fractures exposed by the vote. Voting en masse for the first time since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Sunni Arabs cast ballots in large numbers, according to electoral officials and witnesses. Turnout in areas populated by the country's Shiite majority and ethnic Kurds, whose political leaders drafted the proposed constitution, was described by officials as low.

Turnout reached 93 percent in the heavily Sunni western city of Fallujah after clerics and others went door-to-door telling residents it was safe to venture out of their homes, election officials said.

But in some other western cities, fear crushed the potential that had been suggested by heavy Sunni voter registration. In Ramadi, election day opened with automatic-weapons fire around at least one polling site. There were sporadic explosions as U.S. Marines patrolled the streets. Turnout there was 10 percent. "People are terrified and don't want to risk their lives," said an electoral official, Nadhum Ali.

The strong overall turnout in the west, however, raised the possibility that the disempowered Sunni minority could defeat the draft charter, which endorses a loose federal system with a weak, religiously influenced central government. Many Sunnis fear the draft would bring the breakup of Iraq into ethnic and religious substates, and make permanent their loss of power to the Shiite Muslim majority after the toppling of Hussein.

Defeating the charter would take a two-thirds "no" vote in at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces. Turnout was strong in three heavily Sunni provinces that had been expected to vote against it: Salahuddin, with 75 percent turnout reported by the local electoral director; Diyala, with 65 percent turnout; and Anbar, whose provincial total was not released Saturday.

First returns were expected Sunday; final, unofficial results are due Thursday. A close vote would risk heightening Sunni suspicions about the political process.

In his weekly radio address Saturday, President Bush said that the referendum dealt "a severe blow to the terrorists" while sending a message to the world. "Iraqis will decide the future of their country through peaceful elections, not violent insurgency."

Bush said the referendum was "a critical step forward in Iraq's march toward democracy." Despite eroding public support for the war, Bush also promised to stay the course in Iraq. "America will not run, and we will not forget our responsibilities," he said.

Speaking in the Democratic radio address, retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark called the vote "an important step toward a democratic Iraq." Still, he said, "let's not kid ourselves about the difficulties that lie ahead." Defeating the insurgency, winning the support of alienated Sunnis, training Iraqi forces and rebuilding the country's infrastructure and economy remain formidable tasks, he said.

For some Sunnis, a vote against the constitution was in part a statement of rejection of the U.S. occupation. But for most, the vote appeared to signal their entry to Iraq's political process in hope of regaining some control over their future -- if not by defeating the charter, then by winning seats in December's parliamentary elections and working to amend it.

If the Shiites consolidate their power, "we will never see stability in Iraq again," said Khalaf Ahmed Khalif, 53, a farmer in Ishaqi, an area of lush farmland amid arid desert in Salahuddin province. "If you think it's bad, just think about double the number of forces the Americans have in the country right now."

In Ishaqi, 300 people voted in January in elections for a transitional government. By late Saturday afternoon, 9,350 had turned out.

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