Sardar Tawfiq strings a white sheet across the windows of his restaurant during Ramadan, the holy month when observant Muslims shun food, water and cigarettes from dawn until sunset.

The regional government in this Kurdish-controlled city in northern Iraq used to discourage eateries from remaining open during daylight in Ramadan by requiring them to obtain a costly permit. But this year the requirement has been dropped, and dozens of businesses are serving customers choosing not to abstain. The open restaurants are not hard to spot, with billowing white sheets, blinds and striped awnings covering their windows -- what one police official described as an "optional veil."

Tawfiq, 27, said he covered his restaurant out of respect for Ramadan and also to protect customers who "feel ashamed because their friends and neighbors might see them" not observing the fast. But if he did not stay open, he said, he could not pay the rent.

As Iraqis prepared to vote Saturday on a new constitution that emphasizes Islam as a source of law but also espouses democratic rights, they were grappling with how to balance broad individual freedoms with religious traditions such as not breaking the fast in public. Even here in the fairly democratic Kurdish north, Ramadan's rituals made the tension evident.

Eating, drinking or smoking in public during Ramadan is not outlawed in Sulaymaniyah, but it is in the more conservative Kurdish regional capital of Irbil, where police officers acknowledge rounding up violators and either fining or jailing them.

The police major in charge of keeping order on Sulaymaniyah's streets spent Thursday carefully examining a newsprint copy of the proposed constitution, which is still subject to change even if it is adopted this weekend.

"The constitution should be read word by word and very carefully," said Maj. Sherko Shekah Otham. "If we read it, we see it's all open-ended words. Islam is the religion of the Iraqi state. Also, there are some sub-points to the main points that there should not be a law colliding with the law of Islam. But then there is a second point that there should not be a law colliding with democratic laws. It's a circle."

Otham, who waved a cigarette lighter as he talked, said that circularity would leave the application of the constitution up to local officials like him, with the rights extended to Iraqi citizens varying depending on where they live. In the Shiite south, for example, religious leaders impose a strict view of Islam that compels women to cover themselves completely.

"If the south and the middle are afraid of the constitution, they don't understand it," Otham said. "We have to respect religion, but personally I can't force you to do something. If I saw a person light a cigarette and let the smoke go in the air, as a police force we might ask the person why he did this. If he said he is right with God and he doesn't want to fast, he is expressing himself. We can't pressure the people. We are talking about democracy."

After Friday prayers at the main Sulaymaniyah mosque, worshipers suggested that religious leaders should practice the same restraint.

When a preacher known as Sheik Abdulla used his sermon to instruct worshipers to vote in favor of the constitution, murmurs of discontent were audible. Afterward, a senior sheik criticized his colleague for bringing politics into the mosque.

"The religious man should not do this," said Sheik Salar Hafeed, a member of the mosque's governing board. "You have your own will. Most of the religious men follow the political parties. I don't agree."

In the mosque courtyard, Sami Hama Salih, 52, a merchant, said he intended to vote as he saw fit. "If the constitution goes along with the Islamic religion, it will be a good constitution," Salih said as he fingered giant red prayer beads. "I believe in democracy -- but a democracy that will not collide with religion."

Though the boundaries of preaching are subjective, rules for fasting are spelled out in the Koran, the Islamic holy book. Muslims believe fasting is a form of worship appropriate to the holiest month in the year. Islamic law prohibits believers from ingesting anything through their noses or mouths and forbids sexual relations during the day. Some Muslims have said that after years of fasting they no longer feel hunger or thirst during Ramadan and instead are filled with a spiritual closeness to God.

Mohammad Salah, 27, the son of the sheik of Sulaymaniyah's Great Mosque, said he was deeply committed to his religion and that he observed the Ramadan fast. But he said he didn't think people should be forced to fast. "Religion is something, and life is something," said Salah, who wore jeans and a white T-shirt as he sat in the back office of the shop where he works. "For democracy, there must be a separation from religion."

But when it comes to eating or smoking in public, Salah said he favored a law prohibiting both: "When I see a man smoking, I have a desire to smoke. There should be some sort of law that would prevent people from doing it."

Latif Nasir, 36, who works at an outdoor food stand in a tourist area of Sulaymaniyah, said he was against prohibiting people from breaking the fast. He said he hoped the new constitution would encourage other regions of Iraq to offer broader freedoms like those observed here but acknowledged that was not likely.

"It depends on the location," he said. "Sometimes people think they are beyond the constitution."

Special correspondent Sarok Abdulla Ahmed contributed to this report.

In the Kurdish village of Bakhan, Iraq, Galwezh Qani, 47, said she had not seen the charter, which espouses both democratic rights and religious law.