BAQUBA, IRAQ – Iraqis streamed to the polls on an unusually peaceful Saturday, and preliminary results indicate that the country’s new charter is likely to be approved, clearing the way for the formation of a permanent government.
While Sunnis came out in force to vote “no” in Anbar and Salahuddin provinces, where many claim the charter will lead to the breakup of
Iraq, early returns indicated their vote wasn’t enough to defeat the constitution.
US officials hailed the high turnout as a sign that more Iraqis are becoming engaged in the democratic process, and that the participation of more Sunnis means that ballots will increasingly replace bullets as the way to shape the country’s future.
Better security in many Sunni towns and a general feeling among Sunnis that last January’s parliamentary election boycott hurt their cause more than it helped made many of them want to make their voices heard this time.
But the risk remains that a constitution rejected by a broad Sunni opposition could deepen the sectarian and communal tensions that are feeding Iraq’s war.
Across Iraq, many voters said they were motivated more by their differences than common interests. With cars banned on voting day, Iraqis walked to the polls in an exercise that was something of a fainter carbon copy of Iraq’s first post-invasion election last January. In Shiite Arab and Kurdish areas, turnout appeared lower than in January, as voters expressed ambivalence over the charter they still hoped would pass.
How Iraq’s constitution is seen depends on what group you belong to. Shiites, about 60 percent of the population, who were second-class citizens under
Saddam Hussein, say it will lead to a united and strong Iraq. Sunnis, Hussein’s privileged minority, say it leaves the country at the mercy of foreign powers like the US and
Iran. The Kurds, whose people have always resisted rule from Baghdad and who were gassed by the former dictator, see it as a guarantee that outsiders won’t be able to meddle in their affairs again.
With so many expectations, the constitution – a thin document that has left to future lawmakers many of the most difficult questions about the role of Islam and how national oil revenue will be shared – is sure to disappoint some.
While preliminary results show that two Sunni-dominated provinces rejected the constitution – the insurgent hotbed of Anbar, and Salaheddin province, where Mr. Hussein was born – the other two provinces with large Sunni populations, Diyala and Nineveh, look set to approve it. The constitution could have been stopped if two-thirds of the voters in any three provinces rejected it, or if a simple majority in half of the provinces had voted “no.”
In most of Iraq, polling centers hosted a steady stream of voters throughout the day. But the vote appeared split along sectarian lines. In Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad, Baquba, and the northern city of Mosul, a wide majority of Sunnis said they voted “no.” In the Shiite neighborhoods of the same cities, the opposite was true.
“Of course I voted yes,” says Aisha Mohammed, a Shiite woman emerging from the polling place in Baquba. “This is our future – and I think it will start to bring peace.” She contrasted Iraq’s last referendum – an Oct. 15, 2001, vote for president in which Hussein received 100 percent of the vote – with this one. “No more fake elections – real elections have to be good for Iraq.”
“I came here to challenge the force of evil,” says Abu Ali Shawkat Kadhim in Baghdad, a Shiite laborer whose brother, nephew, and cousins were killed under Hussein’s regime. “Please do not say Sunni refuse and Shiites agree. Say the forces of evil refuse and the forces of good say yes.”
“No real Iraqis support this constitution,” says Mohammed Jassim, one of a group of four men walking to pray at a Sunni mosque after voting in Baquba. “Yes, the Shiites support it, but they’re working for the Americans,” he says while his friends nod. “If it passes, the next step for them is to break up Iraq.”
In another Baquba neighborhood, a man who refused to give his full name echoed the claim that the constitution will lead to the breakup of Iraq. “These people, these southerners, are all in the pay of Iran,” he says, referring to the Shiite leadership. “They’re working against Iraq.”
At polling stations in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, many voters – including a few Sunnis – said they would support the charter in the hope that a democratic parliament would make further changes and prevent the fracturing of the country.
But Basra has been relatively free of insurgent attacks, despite rising tensions in recent weeks between armed Shiite factions and the British that oversee the area. So perceptions in the city are radically different than in Baghdad or the Sunni-dominated provinces.
Shiites are traditionally guided by marjaiya, or religious authorities, of whom the foremost in Iraq is Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. He urged all Iraqis to vote, without explicitly endorsing the “yes” side. In response to direct enquiries, however, his office reportedly advised believers to vote “yes.”
Many other Shiite voters, if asked, said they were voting for the constitution out of personal conviction. “I voted from my heart,” says Musa Samir Marid, a retired driver, at a suburban Basra polling center.
Shiite secularists said that they, too, voted yes, despite misgivings about the draft. Basra University professor Adel al-Thamiry says, the “Islamist constitution” offered nothing for him and his family, but was better than risking outright southern secession in the event of a “no” vote. “In different circumstances, I would vote ‘no.’ “
While some towns struggled with the import of the referendum, Iraqi Kurds were decisive in their support, though turnout across the north was lower than expected.
The Kurdish north is the least diverse part of the country, doesn’t suffer from the sectarian tension of the rest of Iraq as a consequence, and suffered more than most from the depredations of Hussein’s regime. Their politicians have been largely allied with the Shiites who now dominate the government in support of a charter.
Some Kurds voted strategically, turning in a blanket “yes” vote to enshrine their rights in a constitution that to many is the first step toward an independent state. At one polling station in Suleimaniyeh, where votes were counted by lamplight, a total of 1,289 ballots yielded just 13 “no” votes – an approval rate of 99 percent.
But other Kurds didn’t vote at all to send a message – either that the constitution didn’t go far enough toward independence, or that they were angry with local authorities for the lack of basic services.
Turnout was lower in other Kurdish and Shiite areas, reflecting some disaffection that Iraq’s first free election in January did not immediately yield improved economic conditions or security. Turnout in transitional states is also almost always lower in the second vote than the first.
“In the Western world, people have more pressure points on the government – they can go on strike, or organize civil disobedience, or refrain from paying taxes,” says Qaisar Hama-Said Rostam, a lawyer in charge of polling at a Suleimaniyeh school. “Here the only pressure point people have is to not vote on such a day, and they are already practicing that right.”
But for those who turned out to vote at stations festooned with election banners and bunting in the Kurdistan national colors, large issues were at stake.
Nasiq Hassan, a student and election volunteer, voted “to protect my country from the genocide and repression of the past. This can take us to a stage where our generation and coming generations can live in peace and stability.” She wants independence from Baghdad, regardless of the consequences, “so the world would know Kurdistan is different.”
And for some, the vote was about power politics. Waiting in line to cast her ballot, Zeinab Amin Hama carried a framed portrait of Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani meeting President
George Bush – a rare sight in Iraq that could be possible only in largely pro-US Kurdish regions. “I love both of them, and I want them both to be successful … in realizing people’s dreams,” says Ms. Hama, who lost a son fighting Hussein’s forces during a 1991 uprising. “What’s important for me is that Kurds will be successful, no matter if they have independence or not.”
To be sure, efforts were made to accommodate Sunnis before Saturday’s vote. Last week, the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group, swung its support behind the charter after Shiites and Kurds made changes to the draft that make it slightly easier to amend, which changed some Sunni minds in Baghdad’s Sadiyah neighborhood.
“We wish there would be changes in the constitution in the future on federalism and concerning the rights of sharing national revenues,” says Abu Hussam, who used a nickname. “I think we should pass this thing to take the next step and then we can change it then.”