By ANNA BADKHEN
San Francisco Chronicle
October 12, 2005
Here, guarded by Iraqi army and police officers, 1.2 million ballots earmarked for the voters of Salahaddin province lie in hundreds of brown cardboard boxes stacked on a dusty floor, along with knocked-down cardboard voting booths.
"I agree with the draft constitution," each ballot reads, in Arabic and Kurdish. On a blue field below are two squares, marked "Yes" and "No."
Iraqi election officials will begin distributing the ballots to 249 polling sites throughout the predominantly Sunni Arab province of about 1.1 million people, including 27 sites in Tikrit.
Saturday, officials in Iraq and Washington hope, hundreds of thousands of Salahaddin's registered voters will go to the polls and mark the square that says "Yes."
Mohammed Yousef Mahmud, a local election official wearing a mask to protect himself from the dust, surveyed the hangar.
"This is our work of an entire year, and it is geared for just one very important day," he said.
"This is our chance," said Sufar Hussein, a young Iraqi army soldier guarding the ballots in Tikrit. But it is far from certain that Sunni Arab voters in Tikrit, and elsewhere will vote the way Baghdad and Washington want them to. A poll last month by the International Republican Institute showed that of the more than 80 percent of Iraqis who plan to vote, only 49 percent believe that the charter represents the will of the Iraqi people. Opinion among Iraq's minority Sunni population is thought to be even more negative toward the constitution as currently written.
And if two-thirds of the voters in just three out of Iraq's 18 provinces vote "No," then the first post-Saddam constitution goes down to crashing defeat, throwing Iraq's entire future into doubt. The National Assembly would have the opportunity to try to rewrite the constitution in the event of a defeat, but some observers believe a defeat of the draft constitution Oct. could result in the disintegration of the country.
The majority of Iraq's Sunni leaders, who have seen their former power and influence slip away since the United States overthrew the pro-Sunni Saddam regime in 2003, have denounced the draft constitution. They say the federalist structure it proposes gives too much power to the predominantly Shiite region in the south and the predominantly Kurdish region in the north. The fact that those two regions control virtually all of the nation's oil wealth makes the Sunni concerns even greater.
The last time Iraqis had an opportunity to vote - for the new National Assembly in January - the majority of Sunnis, at the behest of most of their political and religious leaders, stayed away from the polls. The result was a lawmaking body made up overwhelmingly of Shiite and Kurdish representatives who went on to form a government and draft the constitution with little Sunni input.
Sunni leaders are not about to make the same mistake again.
A banner strung from the arched sandstone gate marking the southern border of Tikrit on Highway 1 reads: "No to a constitution that divides Iraq." In the city, the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group, passed out copies of the constitution at a Sunni mosque Friday, urging worshippers to go to the polls to reject it. On the wall of one school, which will serve as a polling station, someone has scribbled in pencil: "Saddam Hussein is our hero."
U.S. military officers, whose aim is to prevent insurgents from disrupting the vote, see the process as democracy in action.
"They (Sunnis) might all decide to vote 'No' because they feel this constitution is a setup. But they're all gonna vote," said Lt. Col. Todd Wood, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, whose soldiers are also helping Iraqi election officials with security planning.
Government officials in Baghdad announced a nationwide nighttime curfew starting Thursday, banned Iraqis from carrying weapons in public, barred travel between provinces as of Friday evening, and said they would shut all of Iraq's international borders, airports and ports for the referendum.
Wood's soldiers in Salahaddin have been conducting raids day and night for the past week, detaining people in the province they believe could try to disrupt the vote.
"As part of our election security ramp-up, we've been able to take some people off the street who we know might be problems during the election," Wood said. He said the battalion has detained 36 suspects so far. Some of them were released; many others, Wood said, will be set free the day after the vote.
"Any problems we're gonna see are going to be prior to" the referendum, Wood said.
Sunday morning, Charlie Company of the battalion detained three men just south of Tikrit, in the village of Ouja, where Saddam Hussein was born.
The soldiers suspected them of belonging to a cell that makes and plants roadside bombs. In the house of one of the men, soldiers found photographs of the former dictator, as well as coils of wire they suspected could be used to rig explosive devices.
U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces have set up concrete blast walls around each polling site in Salahaddin province, and Iraqi police and army officers will patrol the polling sites and areas around them on voting day. U.S. soldiers will patrol the province, but they will not enter the polling sites or even approach them "so that Iraqi people see that it is an Iraqi vote, not a coalition vote," Wood said.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com
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