In a Sunni Quarter, A Day of Emotion

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 16, 2005

BAGHDAD, Oct. 15 -- Bald, his once-barreled chest now shriveled, Hassan Mehdi Mohammed hobbled Saturday into the polling station, housed in a worn-out school in the often-restive Sunni Arab neighborhood of Adhamiyah. His steel cane told his story: A veteran Arab nationalist and activist, his left leg was shattered by gunfire more than 40 years ago in a protest against one in a long line of Iraqi dictators. For a moment, he cast his glance at the two-story building around him.

"When I was young, I could have scaled these walls," he said, smiling.

On Saturday, the 73-year-old Mehdi fought what may be his last battle, in a time that he called the most difficult in Iraq's history. He came to cast his ballot against a constitution he believes will divide his country forever.

"I had to vote," he said, "to prove that we're still one nation -- Sunni and Shiite."

Saturday was a day of anger and desperation, regret and occasionally hope in Adhamiyah, a quarter of Baghdad whose very name has become synonymous with Sunni Muslim orthodoxy. Through the sometimes narrow streets that snake among low-slung buildings of tan brick beside the Tigris River, droves went to cast ballots in the referendum on a new constitution. There were men who had spent time in American detention, elderly people in wheelchairs, men who shuttered their shops and women clutching their children. Their numbers proved to be one of the day's most indelible images, and in contrast with the parliamentary elections in January, which the community largely boycotted, Sunni Arabs would have their say this time around.

Some said meekly that they supported the constitution, hoping for something better than the present. But in the crowded polling stations, more supported a "no" vote -- an endorsement of an imagined past over a promised future.

"We can't underestimate the value of Iraq. We want it to stay one, united," said Ibtihaj Ismail, an ailing 47-year-old woman who was helped by her family into a polling station in an elementary school. In front of a crowd, she marked her ballot "no" with a black pen.

Through the day, the referendum unleashed paroxysms of emotion among many in the Sunni Arab community, which for most of the country's modern history, and for centuries before that, guided Iraq through colonialism, coups, dictatorship and disastrous wars. More than two years after Saddam Hussein's fall from power, it remains on the outside looking in -- seething under occupation, alienated from a government dominated by the Shiite majority and Kurdish minority and, all too often, voiceless in its debates, fearful of the influence of Shiite-ruled Iran. Some saw their vote as a way to stake their claim anew to a country they consider theirs; to others, it was a last attempt to forestall its partition, the seeds of which many believe are contained in the roughly 140-article document that seems almost assured of being approved.

"The constitution is Persian. It's not Iraqi," said Jamal Alwan, 41, referring to the dominant ethnic group in Iran, as he headed to the polling station at the Noaman High School for Girls. His friend, 34-year-old Wisam Ali, nodded his head. He, too, was planning to vote "no."

"Do we vote for the massacres of Fallujah, for the massacres of Qaim?" Ali said, referring to Sunni cities in western Iraq where U.S. troops have fought insurgents. "The government is Persian, and the occupation is American. When the Americans withdraw from Iraq, then we'll agree on a constitution. God willing, we'll scuttle this one."

Like Lebanon's Maronite Christians, another minority that grudgingly surrendered power, Iraq's Sunni Arabs sometimes consider themselves the true defenders of their country, a patriotism that can bleed into chauvinism. Many voices barely disguised disgust at a government they see as dominated by long-repressed Shiites beholden to coreligionists in neighboring Iran. To the Sunnis, the foreign military presence in Iraq is unquestionably an occupation and, given the support the insurgency draws from their community, they often are the recipients of most of its humiliation.

Under a hot sun on a cloudless day, Alwan and his friends listed their grievances.

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