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Iraqis vote on constitution; more minority Sunnis participate

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqi officials said the country's vote on a new constitution Saturday was successful because strong support in Shiite and Kurdish areas gave it a good chance of passing, and a greater turnout of minority Sunni Muslims suggested they're being brought into the democratic process.

While most in Iraq did not expect Sunnis to get the two-thirds vote in three provinces needed for the referendum to fail, by Saturday night some were nervous that it might get close.

U.S. and Iraqi politicians hope increased Sunni participation and national elections will isolate the Sunni-led insurgency that has killed thousands of Iraqis and threatened to destabilize the nation. Many did not expect that Sunni participation would reach levels that could derail the constitution. Results were not expected for several days.

Although it was impossible to obtain turnout totals, the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq confirmed that there was high voter turnout in swing provinces, where Sunnis were believed to have mobilized their voter base, Salah al Din, Anbar and Ninewah.

The officials classified provinces where turnout was 34 percent to 66 percent as having intermediate participation; and 67 percent or above as high turnout.

Of the 18 provinces, eight had an intermediate level of turnout and seven had high turnout. Two provinces that Sunnis would need to vote down the referendum had high turnout—Salah al Din and Ninewah—but it was not clear if that reflected a large number of Sunni voters or a campaign by Shiites and Kurds to stop Sunnis from voting the constitution down.

There was no information about the insurgent hotbed of Anbar province, where 144 of 207 planned polling stations opened. That province will almost certainly go against the constitution.

If the constitution is rejected, it would throw U.S. plans for a formation of a permanent government in Iraq next year into disarray.

If Sunnis got close to the two-thirds margin in three provinces needed to sink the constitution but failed, there would be the risk that the minority sect—some 20 percent of the population—would become further marginalized from the political process.

The Sunni-led insurgency barely caused a ripple Saturday by Iraq standards. By early evening, insurgents had launched 47 attacks on voting centers and American and Iraqi troops, according to Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a top U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. The figure was likely to increase as reports filtered in.

By contrast, however, during national elections on Jan. 30 guerrilla fighters launched 347 attacks in a single day. But, Boylan cautioned, "We've seen in the past there is an ability to strike when they want to. We're not going to paint too rosy a picture yet."

A key question that will be answered when results are counted is whether there would be a more solidified division between the sects that could paralyze the country.

The democratic constitution will establish what kinds of laws will govern Iraq and makes Islam a main source of legislation. If it passes it will be up to the next National Assembly to implement the document and iron out issues that it does not clearly address, such as the relationship between the central and regional governments and how oil revenue will be distributed.

At schools turned into polling stations in Baghdad, residents were clearly more comfortable with the voting process than they were in the January elections. They moved easily through the lines and behind cardboard voting booths.

In January many stared at their right index fingers after election workers dipped them in ink, a way to make sure people didn't vote twice. Many this time seemed not to give it a second thought.

Some voters said they were not sure what kind of changes the constitution would yield in their everyday lives. Others said there was little sense of enthusiasm because people were tired from fasting. The election fell in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.

"I voted `yes' to the constitution," said Haider Mohamed Ridha, 30, a computer shop owner in Najaf. "I didn't read it. I just wanted to say `no' to the terrorists."

In the Sunni-dominated Baghdad neighborhoods several people said they worried that provisions that give strong powers to regional governments would divide the country.

Mariam Muhammad, 22, a college student living in Baghdad's mostly Sunni Adimiyah neighborhood, said she opposed the document so she voted against it. But she didn't want anyone to know she went to the polls, so she tried to wash the ink off her finger.

Qassem Azzawi, 39, a Sunni living in New Baghdad, decided not to vote at all. "I do not feel any responsibility to go there," Azzawi said. "The Americans will decide this."

While many Sunnis said they were encouraged by a last-minute deal between key Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish parties to change some provisions of the document, they still could not support it.

Iraqi leaders took veiled jabs at those who opposed the constitution, as they celebrated the referendum.

"I think most of the Arab Sunnis have agreed to this constitution. And those who do not agree with it do not represent the Arab Sunnis," said Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

At some polling centers, voters were handed bumper stickers, magnets and buttons supporting the constitution. When Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a Shiite, and Defense Minister Sadoun al-Dulaimi, a Sunni, appeared at a polling center, they brought a mini bus filled with ordinary-looking citizens who began saying repeatedly: "Yes to the constitution!"

When the dignitaries left, so did the chanting citizens.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Zaineb Obeid, Ahmed Mukhtar, Mohmmed al Dulaimy and Mohammed al Awsy contributed to this report from Baghdad; Hassan al Jubouri contributed from Tikrit; and Qassim Mohammed contributed from Najaf.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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