10/16/2005

Sunni voters caught in runaround at poll

Sunni voters caught in runaround at poll

Phil Sands, Chronicle Foreign Service

Sunday, October 16, 2005


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Ishaki, Iraq -- Less than two hours after polling stations opened Saturday morning, potential voters in the Sunni town of Ishaki were convinced the Iraqi government had rigged the referendum in favor of Kurds, Shiites and Iran.

Dozens of locals, all planning to vote against the draft constitution, had been turned away from the single polling station in town. Lying 40 miles north of Baghdad and just south of Samarra, Ishaki is in the middle of Iraq's Sunni central region, Saddam Hussein's old heartland.

According to election officials here, all those rejected were registered at another polling station 3 miles away -- the only place they would be allowed to vote under the referendum's stringent rules. But a driving ban inside all urban areas, designed to stop suicide bomb attacks, meant these Sunnis, entering the democratic process for the first time, had effectively been disenfranchised.

Hamid Hassan Mohammad, a 28-year-old school principal in the village of Jazeera, part of the wider Ishaki area, said there was a conspiracy to prevent Sunnis from casting votes.

Shortly after being told to leave the polling station, he said, "Maybe they did this on purpose. There are a lot of organizations who have spent a lot of money on this referendum, and they want to see they get the right result. ... There are lots of empty ballot papers, and their top officials will be filling them in with 'yes' to make sure the constitution passes. It's the fault of those in high positions and the bosses in Baghdad, and they will fix it."

Coordinators for the Independent Electoral Commission for Iraq in the area, supported by a huge U.S. troop presence and Iraqi security services, insisted it was a genuine mistake and rushed to remedy the situation, removing the voting restriction. But for Sunnis, out in force on Saturday after January's election boycott, the damage had been done.

There was also confusion about what the vote was actually about. Ayub Khuthir, one of the first to show up in Ishaki, said he had not been given any information about the constitution.

As the 35-year-old farmer passed through a weapons search, he said, "I've no idea about this. We are simple village people, and have not been told anything. I have not seen a copy of the constitution, and I have not got a television to hear about what's in it."

He said he was voting because the Iraqi police "had told me to over a loudspeaker" and would decide with his friends which way to cast his ballot.

By the time polls closed at 5 p.m., Sunnis appeared to be on course to win the necessary majority in Salahaddin province, one of the Sunni-dominant provinces they must take to reject the constitution. There were few reports of violence -- some shootings and overnight bombings, including attacks on U.S. forces. Even in the restive city of Samarra -- still in the hands of insurgents -- so many voters turned out that more ballot papers had to be airlifted in to meet demand.

Turnout was high in Balad, the main Shiite city in the province, and a target of pre-referendum violence that killed more than 100 people. Followers of firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr roamed Balad's streets, urging people to back the controversial legal framework.

Sabeh Abad, 20, a Shiite resident of Balad, said he had voted "yes" because the constitution would usher in a new era of peace. "We will be able to have a strong government and that will help stop the terrorists," he said.

But with the Sunni population apparently convinced the constitution would be passed, by fair means or foul, many predicted worsening violence ahead.

Khalaf Ahmad Khalaf, 53, a Sunni and a farmer from Ishaki, said Shiites and Kurds were trying to split the county and hoard its wealth. "There will be no stability; they are followers of (Shiite-dominant) Iran. If the constitution is passed, it will create more problems. Probably they will need to double the American forces to try and stop the new violence."

Sunni voters caught in runaround at poll

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