BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Iraqis went to the polls Saturday to give a "yes" or "no" to a new constitution aimed at defining democracy in a nation once ruled by Saddam Hussein and now sharply divided among its Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities.
The polls opened at 7 a.m., just hours after government workers managed to restore power lines that insurgents had sabotaged in the northern part of the country Friday night, plunging the Iraqi capital and surrounding towns into darkness.
Iraqis walked down streets lined with stores shut for the day, heading to polling stations protected by concrete barriers and barbed wire. Some entire families showed up at the ballot box.
American troops in Humvees rattled down Baghdad streets in patrols, while Iraqi soldiers and police ringed polling stations at schools and other public buildings with U.S. troops in tanks and armored vehicles not far away as helicopters hovered overhead. Driving was banned to stop suicide car bombings by Sunni-led insurgents determined to wreck the vote.
Militants attacked three of the capital”s 1,200 polling stations, wounding two policemen and a civilian, but Iraq was mostly peaceful.
In the south, the heartland of Iraq”s Shiite majority, lines formed at polling stations in Basra, Hillah and other major cities as people poured in to vote on a constitution Shiite leaders have strongly supported. The community”s top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has told followers they must vote «yes.»
But turnout appeared low in the early hours in Sunni Arab towns in the center and west.
"Today, I came to vote because I am tired of terrorists, and I want the country to be safe again," said Zeinab Sahib, a 30-year-old mother of three, one of the first voters.one of the first voters in the mainly Shiite neighborhood of Karrada in Baghdad. "This constitution means unity and hope."
As Sahib walked into a school to vote, wearing a head-to-toe black chador dress, Iraqi soldiers armed with heavy machine guns guarded the area from nearby rooftops. However, Ramadi, the capital of overwhelmingly Sunni Arab Anbar province, looked like a ghost town, with empty streets. At the hour polls opened, insurgents clashed witH U.S. troops in the downtown streets. Only about 20 people had voted in the Sunni town of Haditha, northwest of Baghdad, after three hours. Said Ahmad Fliha walked up the hill to the fortified polling station with the help of a relative and Iraqi soldier.
"I”m 75 years old. Everything is finished for me. But I”m going to vote because I want a good future for my children," Fliha said.
Al Iraq”s approximately 6,100 polling stations, voters marked their paper ballot "yes" or "no" under one question, written in Arabic and Kurdish: "Do you agree on the permanent constitution project?" After placing the ballots in the plastic boxes at the polling centers, the Iraqis had the forefinger of their right hands marked with violet ink to prevent multiple voting.
Nearly 450 people had been killed by Sunni-led insurgents in the 19 days before Saturday”s vote, often by suicide car bombs, roadside bombs and drive-by shootings.
Iraqis remain deeply divided over the approximately 140-charter draft constitution they were voting on Saturday. The country”s Shiite majority, some 60 percent of its 27 million people, and the Kurds, another 20 percent, support the charter, which provides them with autonomy in the regions where they are concentrated in the north and south.
The Sunni Arab minority, which dominated the country under Saddam and forms the backbone of the insurgency, widely opposes the draft, convinced its federalist system will eventually tear the country apart into Shiite and Kurdish mini-states in the south and north, leaving Sunnis in an impoverished center. Many of them feel the document doesn”t sufficiently support Iraq”s Arab character.
Last-minute amendments in the constitution, adopted Wednesday, promise Sunnis the chance to try to change the charter more deeply later, prompting one Sunni Arab group _ the Iraqi Islamic Party _ to support the draft Saturday.
Most others still reject it, but a split in the Sunni vote may be enough to ensure its passage.
In Baghdad, President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari were shown live on Al-Iraqiya television voting in a hall in the heavily fortified Green Zone, where parliament and the U.S. Embassy are based. After putting their paper ballots in white-and-black plastic boxes, both smiled and waved to the public.
"The constitution will pave the way for a national unity," said al-Jaafari. "It is a historical day, and I am optimistic that the Iraqis will say `yes."
The United States hopes that the constitution”s success will pave the way for withdrawing American troops.
Ratification of the constitution requires approval by a majority of voters nationwide.
however, if two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq”s 18 provinces vote "no," the constitution will be defeated, and Sunni Arab opponents have a chance of swinging the ballot in four volatile provinces: Anbar, Nineveh, Salahuddin and Diyala.
Across Iraq on Saturday, the situation at polling stations varied widely.
In the central Baghdad area of Khulani, where Sunnis and Shiites both live, a steady stream of voters entered a large polling station, but not enough to form lines.
All voters were searched three times before entering the building, including old men and women who could barely walk with canes, and young mothers wearing chadors and carrying infants. Other voters wore baggy traditional Kurdish dresses, and some youths were dressed in jeans.
"I am an Iraqi citizen. Of course, I voted `yes," said Abid Ali Hussein, an elderly man with a white beard, as he left the area. "God willing, there will be no terrorism."
In the mostly Shiite city of Hillah, about 95 kilometers (60 miles) south of Baghdad, lines quickly formed at polling stations.
Some voters carried Iraqi flags and banners saying, "Yes to the constitution." Iraqi police guarding the streets and imams at local mosques both used loudspeakers to urge Hillah residents to cast ballots.
But Haditha, a mostly Sunni Arab city 220 kilometers (140 miles) northwest of Baghdad, where a large U.S. offensive was just fought against insurgents, was much less enthusiastic.
Other than soldiers and polling station workers, no one showed up to vote in the first hour and a half of voting.
One reason was that residents had only be told of the polling site locations minutes beforehand.
Just after dawn U.S. Humvees roamed the streets, blaring the location of two polling sites in the city. The locations were kept hidden until the last minute to prevent insurgent attacks.
The main polling station was heavily guarded, located up a long, winding walkway to a schoolhouse on top of a hill. A U.S. tank, concrete barriers and metal detectors were positioned at the front of the polling station entrance along with dozens of Marines. Iraqi soldiers roamed the rest of the complex.
"I voted `no” because the new government says if there is trouble in the future, Iraq could be split. I say there should be one nation," said voter Obeidi Amir Nasser, 30. But one U.S. soldier said he hoped the "yes" side would prevail.
"I hope they have a really big turnout," said Lance Cpl. Sam Smithson of Sacramento, California, as he helped guard the entrance of the station on a particularly breezy morning. "The closer they get to independence, the closer we get to going home."
In Fallujah, the mostly Sunni city west of Baghdad that was heavily damaged by a U.S. offensive against insurgents in 2004, hundreds of Iraqis gathered in front of many polling centers chanting: "No, no for the constutiton. Yes, yes for Iraq."
Mustafa Kamil, a 32-year-old laborer, said he would vote "no" because the constitution is "the first step toward dividing Iraq" and runs against Islamic Sharia law. "This constitution does not say that Iraq is an Arab country," he said in an interview. "It was not written by Iraqi hands and it only meets the ambitions of Shiites and Kurds, since they have a majority in parliament."