IRAQ – Iraq’s Sunni Arabs voted in large numbers in a nationwide referendum on a new constitution Saturday, injecting a measure of uncertainty into the fate of a U.S.-backed charter that the country’s disaffected minority had largely condemned.
As polls closed after 10 hours of balloting that was surprisingly free of insurgent violence, the Independent Elections Commission of Iraq reported a 61 percent turnout of the overall electorate, with higher rates of voting in three of the four provinces where Sunnis are a majority. The large turnout reversed a defiant Sunni boycott of the country’s historic elections in January.
Officials did not announce any returns in the yes-or-no balloting. If two-thirds of the votes in three or more provinces go against it, the proposed constitution will be scrapped.
Kurdish voters in northern Iraq and Shiites in the south voted “yes” for the constitution, but election officials said they turned out in relatively smaller numbers.
That meant the outcome hinged on tallies coming as early as Sunday from Sunni-dominated Salahuddin and the ethnically mixed provinces of Nineveh and Diyala. A “no” vote was a near-certainty in Anbar, the overwhelmingly Sunni province at the heart of an insurgency that has plagued the country since the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
“This referendum was a challenge for the Sunnis, and they turned out in force to reject it,” said Jabber Habbieb, a Baghdad University political scientist. The constitution’s Kurdish and Shiite backers in the rest of Iraq, he added, “were overconfident, so their participation was incomplete.”
But some Sunnis leaving the polls in Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province, said they had endorsed the constitution, improving its chances there. The city has a large Kurdish minority, and it voted overwhelmingly in favor of the charter.
Approval of the constitution is crucial for moving Iraq’s democratic process in step with a U.S. timetable that aims to start a withdrawal of American troops next year. If the charter passes, the Parliament that Iraqis elect Dec. 15 would appoint a government to serve four years, replacing the one chosen by lawmakers last spring.
President Bush called the vote “a critical step forward in Iraq’s march toward democracy.” And U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised the country’s exercise in democracy.
“All that I’ve seen is pictures on television so far which look as if the Iraqis are exercising their right – they are doing so in a peaceful manner, they are doing so enthusiastically,” Rice said as she traveled from Moscow to London.
Sunnis, dominant in Saddam’s Iraq and now leading the insurgency, widely oppose the draft charter because they believe its federalist system will divide the country into Kurdish and Shiite mini-states in the north and oil-rich south, leaving Sunnis concentrated in the resource-poor center and west. Sunnis make up about one-fifth of Iraq’s 27 million people.
“We lost our voice in the last election,” said Mohammed Jasser, a 21-year-old clothing salesman in Nineveh province who joined most other Sunnis in boycotting the Jan. 30 election of a legislative National Assembly. Nationwide turnout for that election was 58 percent. The assembly then endorsed “a constitution that divides Iraq,” he said. “We want to keep Iraq united.”
More than 9 million of the country’s 15.5 million voters went to 5,855 polling stations in 18 provinces. The referendum marked an enthusiastic re-entry of Sunnis into peaceful politics, facilitated by a de-facto insurgent cease-fire against voters.
An election official in Anbar attributed what little violence occurred to non-Iraqi militants loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian insurgent leader.
Home-grown insurgents “were more interested in letting people vote `no’ than in causing any violence,” said Sadoon Zubaidy, a Sunni member of the committee that drafted the constitution.
Calm prevailed in most cities and towns as entire families strolled hand-in-hand to polling places and men played soccer in streets freed by police order of all private vehicles in a move to thwart car bombings.
Iraqi police snipers in black masks lay on rooftops and blue-uniformed cops with Kalashnikovs frisked voters outside polling stations protected by concrete barriers and barbed wire. American troops sat in tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles nearby.
There was little of the euphoria and celebration that marked the Jan. 30 elections. But absent too was the electric sense of fear that hung over voters that day as they defied insurgent attacks that left 44 people dead.
“We need a constitution to rule this country,” Alia Fahad, a 52-year-old art teacher, said after voting with her family in Baghdad. “Otherwise, we are ungovernable. We cannot go on like this.”
Nine Iraqi soldiers died in three attacks Saturday, two of them unrelated to the voting. Three of the soldiers were killed in a roadside bomb attack on their convoy near Baghdad as it trucked completed ballots to the capital, Reuters news agency reported.
Four voters were reported wounded near a Baghdad polling station when two police units unintentionally opened fire on each other.
And 10 of Anbar province’s 154 polling stations failed to open as U.S. and Iraqi forces battled insurgents in the city of Ramadi and other parts of the province, election officials said.
Ashraf Ghazi, the U.N. envoy to Iraq, said two U.S.-led military offensives launched this month in Anbar disrupted the voting there.
But two heavily Sunni cities – Fallujah in Anbar and Samarra, the capital of Salahuddin – reported large turnouts of residents holding up ink-stained fingers proving they had voted.
“I have seen pictures of citizens who are proud to be shown on camera having voted,” said Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, a Shiite, referring to television footage from the two cities. “There were no such pictures from these places in the last election. … The victory for Iraq is that they are voting.”
Jafari’s ruling coalition of Shiites and Kurds shaped the draft that was on Saturday’s ballot and negotiated several amendments last week that helped win the support of a leading Sunni group, the Iraqi Islamic Party.
Many voters said they were confused by the eleventh-hour revisions to a constitutional draft that almost no one has seen in its final form.
“I was watching TV last night and they were explaining the constitution when the power went off,” said Duraid Abdullah, a schoolteacher in Mosul who voted “no” in protest against the Jafari government. “As teachers, we should be the first to know what is going on. We are literally in the dark.”
In the south, the heartland of Iraq’s Shiite majority, voters in Basra, Hillah, Najaf and other cities lined up behind an endorsement of the charter by the leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
“This is a social pact signed by the Iraqi people — something different from what used to happen when the ruler of the country was the one and only signer who produced a constitution,” said Abdul Ameer Mohammad Jasmin, a 35-year-old cafe owner in Najaf.
The Shiite vote was diminished, however, by the refusal of another leading cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, to endorse the charter on the grounds that it was drafted under U.S. pressure.
Turnout was also low in two of the three Kurdish provinces that have enjoyed de-facto autonomy since the United States imposed a no-fly zone over the region to keep Saddam’s army out after the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Many Kurds took the “yes” vote for granted, and not all of them went to the polls.
“This is a celebration,” said Aveen Abdul Aziz, a 27-year-old nurse, after voting in the Kurdish city of Irbil fMany Iraqis said they voted for the charter to speed the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Sufyan Jamil, a 33-year-old Sunni “yes” voter in Mosul, put it this way: “I want stability in Iraq, but that cannot be achieved until the Americans leave. And they will not leave unless we have a strong government, but there won’t be a strong government until we have a constitution.”
Even if the charter passes, the American effort in Iraq faces major hurdles. It’s unclear whether Iraq’s evolving democratic institutions will work to undermine the insurgency.
The proposed constitution does not address the most divisive issues facing Shiites, Kurds and Sunni Arabs, including the separation of powers between central and regional governments, and the allocation of oil resources and other revenues.
Drafters of the charter left those issues up to the next parliament, putting off for future debate at least 55 constitutional provisions with the phrase, “and a law shall organize this.”
“Today is not the end,” former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said. “We still have big problems. … The whole draft is open for review.”
Times staff writers Louise Roug in Mosul, Solomon Moore in Fallujah and Shamil Aziz in Baghdad, and special correspondents Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf and Abdulsalam Madani in Irbil contributed to this report.