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Sunday, October 16, 2005

Two Sides of the Sunni Vote: Deserted Polls and Long Lines - New York Times

Two Sides of the Sunni Vote: Deserted Polls and Long Lines - New York TimesOctober 16, 2005
Two Sides of the Sunni Vote: Deserted Polls and Long Lines
By SABRINA TAVERNISE and EDWARD WONG

RAMADI, Iraq, Oct. 15 - A heavy boom shook what was left of the windows in polling station No. 1, a provincial council building in the west of this embattled Sunni Arab city. Bursts of automatic gunfire immediately followed. The polls had been open for exactly three minutes, and insurgents here had already staked their claim on the vote.

In the eastern neighborhood of Sufiya, security guards working for tribal sheiks in charge of protecting 14 polling centers had to hold off insurgents for nearly half an hour on Friday. Armed men returned on the day of the vote, strafing three schools.

But an electoral worker said nearly 8,000 voters had shown up by Saturday night, far higher than the turnout in western Ramadi, where not a single voter turned up at station No. 1 except for poll workers and soldiers stationed there. A few voters showed up at nearby stations.

Thirty miles to the east, in the former guerrilla stronghold of Falluja, transformed by an American invasion in November 2004 into a garrison town, Sunni Arab voters began lining up at polling centers about 8 a.m. under the intense gaze of mostly Shiite policemen and soldiers. The lines grew throughout the morning, with women in full-length black robes mingling with young men and the elderly to cast their votes. The queues stretched down the block at schools like Jumhuriya in the city center and Ibn Khaldoon in the west.

"We came to vote in response to the call of our religious and political leaders," said Khaleel Abdullah Ahmad, 45, a car mechanic standing inside a polling center in south Falluja. "I voted no because our leaders said that this constitution is unsuitable for our community and our country. It's forbidden to vote yes because it contradicts Islamic law."

Those contrasting scenes in Anbar reflected the complex and fractious nature of Sunni Arab sentiments toward the constitution and toward the unfolding political process in Iraq. In January, during elections for a transitional Parliament, turnout in provinces with significant Sunni Arab populations was dismal, leading American officials to admit that politically co-opting the Sunni Arabs, a minority that ruled Iraq for decades, could turn out to be much tougher than they had thought.

But there was anecdotal evidence on Saturday that turnouts in at least three of those provinces, Salahuddin, Nineveh and Diyala, were higher than in January.

The possible surge in levels of participation in the northern and eastern parts of the Sunni Triangle, and in Falluja, showed that there might be some give on the political front, though whether that would help temper the insurgency or ease Sunni Arab animosity toward Shiite and Kurdish rule was unclear.

From the rhetoric of Sunni Arab political leaders, it had become clear in the past several months that many regretted having called for a boycott of the elections in January, which resulted in a surrender of power to Shiite and Kurdish groups. Some Sunni Arab leaders have been advocating involvement in the constitutional vote and, more important, in elections in mid-December for a full-term Parliament.

But bringing more Sunni Arabs into the political process certainly does not mean they will accept the new power structure. Those Sunni Arabs who walked along largely empty streets on Saturday to polling centers appeared, by early and unscientific counts, to widely favor a rejection of the constitution. Many articulated the most common Sunni complaint about the constitution - that it promoted a system of federalism in which the central government would cede significant powers to the regions, possibly allowing oil-rich Shiite and Kurdish areas of Iraq to become virtually separate entities.

The constitution can pass by simple majority approval, unless two-thirds of voters in three provinces vote no. Sunni Arabs who did turn out in Salahuddin, Nineveh and Diyala may have done so in hopes that they could defeat the constitution by meeting that requirement. Before Saturday, it seemed possible that violence or apathy could dampen Shiite and Kurdish turnout in those provinces enough for Sunni Arabs to hit the two-thirds benchmark.

"We have two polling centers, and the turnout was good," said Meshaal al-Ezba, 50, a farmer in the town of Rabia, in Nineveh Province. "I voted no on the constitution because I still believe in having a strong central system."

In Diyala Province, which is about 40 percent Sunni Arab, an electoral supervisor at Al Afak Elementary School in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Mufrek said more than 1,000 people had voted during the first four hours. By late morning, lines still snaked out of the polling rooms into the inner courtyard.

Across the country, Sunni Arabs who voted no gave varying reasons. Some said they had listened to the advice of clerics. Others, including more secular, middle-class voters, complained that the country, under Shiite rule, was heading in the wrong direction, wracked as it was by the disintegration of order and the increasingly Islamic nature of society.

"I voted no to the constitution because there are a lot of clauses that contradict each other and that give an idea that it isn't solid," said Basher Ahmed, a 30-year-old laborer who had just voted in Al Mamoun girls secondary school in the Yarmouk neighborhood of Baghdad. "Also, I believe that federalism is not for unifying Iraq, but rather for dividing it. Each region can have its own laws, yet they say this unites Iraq!"

In the heavily Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya, where Saddam Hussein made his last public appearance during the American invasion, many voters spoke with reasoned hostility about the constitution.

"We're against Iraq being divided," said Nuha al-Moktar, 42, walking alongside her 7-year-old daughter. "No, we don't like Saddam. We didn't like him. But we would like to be able to walk safely in our streets."

At the same polling center, two young Sunni Arab men said in rather oblique terms that they had decided to support the constitution. Their opinion was the exception in the neighborhood, and perhaps that was why they chose their words carefully when explaining how they had voted.

"I don't really want to mention whether I voted yes or no, but we have to vote yes to what is positive," said Arkan Ruzzuqi, 32, a laborer in a dark green sweatshirt.

"We didn't follow the religious leaders," he added. "We followed ourselves. We think this is good for Iraq."

He and his friend, Ahmed Abdul-Razzaq, 24, the owner of a kebab restaurant, said they had voted for Ayad Allawi, the ex-Baathist and former prime minister, in January. In December, they said, they would vote for someone like Mr. Allawi, someone they could call a real leader.

It is unclear how Sunni Arab politicians and religious leaders will now organize themselves for the December elections, should voters approve the constitution. A fissure opened up last week in the Sunni ranks when two moderate groups told voters to support the constitution, while hard-line organizations like the Muslim Scholars Association, which says it represents 3,000 mosques across the country, urged followers to vote no.

"According to what we see of this situation and how we're living these days," Mr. Ruzzuqi said, "we need someone strong."

Sabrina Tavernise reported from Ramadi for this article, and Edward Wong from Baghdad. Reporting for this article was contributed by John F. Burns and Harb al-Mukhtar from Baghdad, Qais Mizher from Ramadi, Kirk Semple from Baquba andIraqi employees of The New York Times from Falluja and Mosel.

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