Iraqis vote on constitution

Voters were seen making their way to fortified polling stations around Baghdad on Saturday morning amid a heavy presence of Iraqi police and soldiers eager to thwart any attacks by Sunni-led insurgents determined to wreck the vote.

President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari cast their ballots in the heavily fortified Green Zone, where Iraq’s parliament and the US Embassy are based.

High-security measures for the vote include a four-day national holiday, an extended curfew, a ban on civilians carrying weapons and a one-day ban on the use of personal vehicles.

A total of 15.5 million Iraqis have been called to cast their vote on the draft charter, which can be approved by a simple majority.

To be rejected, a two-thirds majority must vote against it in at least three of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

President Talabani called on the many Sunni Arabs who oppose the draft charter to choose politics over violence during the referendum.

“The Sunni Arab brothers should understand that their aspirations will be achieved through political action and not violence and terrorist acts,” President Talabani, a Kurd, told the private Asharquia television channel.

Sunni office attacked

Insurgents fired on four polling stations in southern Baghdad late Friday, though no casualties were reported, an interior ministry source said.

Near Karbala, a Shiite holy city south of Baghdad, three Iraqi soldiers were killed in a firefight with police owing to circumstances that remained unclear, a local official said.

Earlier, rebels attacked two bureaus of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party in Baghdad and Baiji, north of the capital, and burned a third in the volatile town of Fallujah, security sources said. There were no casualties.

The three assaults brought to six the number of Islamic Party offices targeted since the leading Sunni political group expressed support for the charter on Tueday.

The attacks were later claimed in an unverified Internet statement by an al-Qaeda-linked group, which said it intended to threaten the “collaborator party so that it doesn’t express itself in the name of Sunnis.”

Many Sunnis, about 20 percent of Iraq’s 26 million people, fear federal provisions in the draft charter could lead to the break-up of Iraq and leave control of its vast oil wealth in the hands of Shiites and Kurds.

But the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, emphasised the rising support for the draft charter among Sunni leaders and organisations.

The draft constitution was now backed by the Islamic Party, members of the National Dialogue Council, prominent tribal chiefs and a group representing thousands of Sunni clerics, he said on CNN.

Mr Khalilzad said a last-minute compromise by the Iraqi parliament, allowing the constitution to be reviewed and amended in the future, had opened the way for Sunni support.

He said if the constitution is adopted in Saturday’s referendum, if parliamentary elections in December proceed smoothly and if progress is made in training Iraq security forces, the US military presence could begin to be reduced beginning sometime next year.

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