The posters were stacked Friday outside the Um al-Qura mosque, built originally as an ode to Saddam Hussein's adventures and now the headquarters of Iraq's Sunni Arab opposition. "No to federalism!" they declared. Inside the building of sand-hued concrete and blue tile was a similar story: condemnations on a bulletin board of U.S. raids in Sunni villages and shadowy assassinations at the hands of Shiite militias. A letter from the clergy delivered yet another message: The constitution is a sham.
Nearby was Ali Kadhim, a Sunni worshiper and 32-year-old former army officer. His name is more commonly Shiite than Sunni, and so was his opinion. In the referendum Saturday on Iraq's draft constitution, he said he would vote yes.
"For the unity of Iraq," he said softly, as he leaned against the brick wall before the start of Friday prayers. "If the constitution is rejected, the people will only suffer. This country needs stability, and it needs security."
As Iraq heads toward its second nationwide election since Hussein's ouster in 2003, the question of how Iraqis will vote yields an easy answer: most commonly yes, at times no, often not at all. Their reasons for voting, however, are every bit as complicated as Iraq itself, as the country lingers in a weary interregnum between dictatorship and a promised democratic future.
While many fear that civil war will ensue if the constitution is rejected, others have the same fear if it is approved. In views that span the country's ethnic and sectarian chasm, some see the parliamentary election held last January as a charade; others are loath to surrender the rights it embodied. Those staying away have their own reasons for doing so. These include a protest of the government's meager record since taking power this year, or cynicism at a process that has left them, as in the earliest days of the occupation, without basic needs such as electricity, water, gasoline and cooking oil. Some say they will simply follow the lead of their community's leaders, whose sectarian voices are becoming ever more important in a divided country.
Less debated are areas that are integral to the blueprint of a future state, such as the impact of federalism, the role of Islam, the division of Iraq's vast oil resources and the rollback of women's rights. The more common view is that the vote is a means to an end. As in the January election, many say they are voting in hopes that their lives might become more ordinary.
"We need to end this crisis," said Dhiaa Hussein, a merchant along Baghdad's Mutanabi Street, an avenue of bookstores and stationery shops that long ago lost the luster of its reputation as an intellectual crossroads. "We need law in the country."
"I am worn out by new parliaments. I am tired of new governments," he said. "We want progress. We don't want to go backward." His friend, Khaled Maha, nodded his head. "If you vote no, it means we would backtrack at least a year," Maha said.
Posters from January's election, faded and sometimes torn, still hang in Baghdad's streets, with the appeals for Saturday's vote beside them. Often, they speak to the converted. "We will not be defeated, we will not be broken," one states in the largely Shiite neighborhood of Shaab. In mixed neighborhoods, there is a more inclusive symbol: a flower whose petals bear the names of Iraq's plethora of sects and ethnicities that declares, "I am Iraqi." A banner before a revered shrine in the often-restive Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah says, "No to the constitution, no to the occupation and no to deceiving the people."
Slogans can be dangerous in Baghdad. To some, they recall the ubiquitous "unity, freedom and socialism" motto of Hussein's Baath Party, a cynical veneer to more than three decades of brutality. For others, they recall the promises they believe U.S. and Iraqi leaders made, then broke. A refrain these days, both from those voting yes and those voting no, is frustration with what was delivered.
"You ask me my point of view? There's no point in voting," said Kawa Mohammed, 27, a Kurdish pharmacist. "It's all the same -- as it was before, as it is today. There's just no conclusion."
Across the street was Ahmed Badr, a 25-year-old Shiite day laborer stacking bundles of paper in a stationery shop dimmed at dusk by an electricity cut. He shook his head when asked whether he would vote. "The constitution is talking about caring for the environment, and everyone in the street is being killed," he said, his palms turned upward. "What kind of constitution is that?"
Sunni insurgents' threats of wholesale retribution shadowed January's vote, which was largely boycotted by Sunni Arabs. At the time, one leaflet in predominantly Sunni western Iraq warned that the streets would be washed with voters' blood. Some of those threats have persisted. Insurgents "welcome the visitors for the constitution who will go to hell," said a slogan scrawled this week on a concrete barrier protecting a polling station in the Sunni town of Tikrit.
But the insurgents, already a fractured entity, seem divided on whether to attempt to disrupt the vote. The Sunnis' turnout might, in fact, distinguish this ballot, although some say a boycott is the equivalent of voting no. Others express cynicism at the process itself.
"It's simply a cover for the Americans. They say we finished what we set out to do, and half the country is destroyed," said Sayyid Abdel-Karim, as he visited a barbershop in Baghdad's Karrada district. "The constitution won't do anything. It's not the time for the constitution."
Money spent on the constitutional campaign, he said, would be better spent on electricity, paving roads, equipping hospitals and subsidizing medicine.
But Abdel-Karim acknowledged that he was in a distinct minority, a Sunni who works in a largely Shiite neighborhood. He predicted nine out of 10 Karrada residents would vote yes.
"Definitely yes!" shouted Ali Muhsin Sabr, a 53-year-old shoe salesman down the street, who is Shiite but secular.
"I lived through the government of Nuri Said, through the government of Abdel-Karim Qassem," he said, referring to past Iraqi leaders. "From their days until now, no one showed us the draft of a constitution. None of them. This is the first time. Since the days of the monarchy until now, this is the first government willing to put the constitution before its people."
He had yet to read it, he said, but trusted those who drafted it.
Both inside Iraq and abroad, events are often portrayed through the lens of sect and ethnicity. The Shiite Arab clergy and religious parties have rallied behind the constitution and are sure they can deliver the vote. The same goes for the Kurdish parties in northern Iraq. Sunni Arabs are divided. The Iraqi Islamic Party, a leading Sunni group, broke ranks this week and said it supported the charter.
A starker message came from the more influential Association of Muslim Scholars, headquartered at Um al-Qura. "Those young and old realize today that the invaders did not come to deliver us freedom but rather to colonize the country and humiliate the worshipers," said an open letter from the association, posted on a bulletin board at the mosque's entrance. "Those who torture the people and give them no mercy entered by force and will never leave except by force."
But sect and ethnicity sometimes explain only so much. In Um al-Qura Friday, most worshipers seemed opposed to the constitution, fearing its formula for federalism would lay the groundwork for division. (Others cited unfounded rumors that the constitution barred a Sunni from becoming president and required the instruction of Farsi, the language of neighboring Iran, in Iraq's schools.) Even that opposition, though, was occasionally tempered.
Majid Abu Shahd, a Sunni worshiper, sat on the carpet before prayers, quietly reciting from a green Koran perched atop a small wooden stand. Would he vote for the constitution? "Absolutely no," he answered. "It's an American constitution, with a few paragraphs -- just a few -- written by Iraqis." Still, he said, he wanted the American forces to stay, at least for now. "If they left, it would only be more chaos and give rise to more sectarianism."
In Shaab, a poor neighborhood largely populated by Shiite Arabs, a group of men milled about as followers of Moqtada Sadr, a young, anti-American Shiite cleric, surged down a street strewn with garbage, concrete barriers and banners, calling a vote for the constitution a religious duty. "No to Saddam, no to the Baath, no to the occupier!"
Muqdad Aziz, an unemployed 29-year-old, led the conversation. Some of the objections echoed the same sentiments at Um al-Qura. One feared Iraq's division; another was angry at the Americans. Aziz said he would not vote, to protest against the parties in power.
"What was the result of the previous election?" he asked. Shiite leaders "ordered us to vote and what was the result?" The men around him nodded. "There was nothing. They fooled us then, and they'll fool us now. It's the same."
Amir Abu Mohammed, a 24-year-old friend, jumped in. "The Americans are trying to persuade the people that the constitution is the only way to solve the problems we face -- electricity, gasoline, water, cooking oil, services and stability. But the constitution is not the solution. The constitution is like a machine, and it depends on who operates the machine."
Many Iraqis expressed frustration Friday at not having seen copies of the constitution. Most rely on satellite television to inform their opinions. Along Republican Street, in the Baghdad market of Shurja, a lone traffic officer handed out four-page, tabloid-size copies of the document to passing cars. Samir Lutfi, a 54-year-old Sunni Arab who sells black-market gasoline, read the draft as he sat sprawled in the front seat of his battered blue Toyota parked along the curb.
"I'm only now reading it," he said. "I don't know whether it will serve the country or not."
It didn't matter. He said he would vote yes anyway.
"We don't want any more delays," he said. "We're tired of the delays."
A gunshot sounded, then another, from nowhere in particular. Lutfi grimaced, but barely flinched.
"For how long can we stay like this?" he asked. "We have to know our fate."