Iraqis voted yesterday on a new constitution that turns a page on the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein, but insurgents struck at polling stations despite a massive security clampdown, killing four people.
Around 15.5 million Iraqis are registered to vote on the charter, which lays out a democratic framework for a new Iraq but has sharply divided the country on ethnic lines and was only drafted after weeks of tortuous negotiations.
"I think the majority [of all Iraqis] will vote yes," said Kurdish President Jalal Talabani after he cast his ballot inside Baghdad's heavily-protected Green Zone.
In the country's second national vote since Saddam was toppled by US-led invasion forces in April 2003, Iraqis are being asked a single question: "Do You Approve the Draft Constitution of Iraq?"
However, under a deal hammered out only on Wednesday, voters are deciding on what is effectively a partial constitution after political leaders agreed further revisions could be considered after new elections in December, in a bid to bring the disaffected Sunni minority on board.
Many Sunnis, who make up about 20 percent of Iraq's 26 million population, fear federal provisions in the charter could lead to the break-up of Iraq and leave control of its vast oil wealth in the hands of the majority Shiites and the Kurds.
"Sunni Arab brothers should understand that their aspirations will be achieved through political action and not violence and terrorist acts," Talabani told the private Asharqia television channel on Friday.
Despite a raft of security measures, including a ban on cars and weapons and the closure of international borders, three Iraqi soldiers were killed in a bomb blast as they inspected a polling station northeast of the capital.
West of Baghdad, a civilian was shot dead during an attack on police near a polling station.
Several stations in Baghdad were also fired upon Friday and yesterday despite the heightened security, and a sabotage attack on a power line cut electricity to the capital and the main southern city of Basra, plunging both into darkness late on Friday.
Cars and pedestrians were largely absent from Baghdad streets, creating the eerie feel of a baking ghost town in a city of six million people.
US combat helicopters patrolled the skies over the capital, launching green and red flares, while Iraqi soldiers stood guard at polling stations fortified with concrete barricades.
"Today we are in transition, we are about to attain political stability built on a constitutional foundation," Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari told reporters.
The charter requires a simple majority to be approved, but would be rejected if two-thirds of the votes in at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces say "no."
Results should be known within three days, chief electoral official Adil al-Lami said.
In Baghdad, dozens of men and women who travelled on foot to vote entered the polling stations in separate lines. Squads of policemen checked identity papers and searched voters once about 200m away and a second time just outside the station. US soldiers performed a third perimeter check.
The constitution "represents hope for Iraq even if some things are missing which will be addressed later," said Jamil Musawi, a voter in the town of Kut south of Baghdad.
The top UN envoy in Iraq, Ashraf Qazi, said initial reports indicated a "fairly healthy" turnout.
Qazi called the referendum "a very important benchmark in the political transition" and stressed that "whatever the choice of the Iraqis the political process will proceed."
But underscoring hostility among Sunni Arabs, posters outside a prominent Sunni mosque in Baghdad showed Iraq cut up by bloody sabres held by hands attached to US and Iranian flags.
"No to the constitution that tears the unity of Iraq," it declared.
In Hilla, south of Baghdad, loudspeakers at Shiite mosques blared: "The constitution is Iraq's salvation," backing the recommendation of Iraq's revered top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
Security measures for the vote include a four-day national holiday that began Thursday, an extended curfew, a ban on civilians carrying weapons and a ban on the use of personal vehicles.
International borders have been closed to traffic except the transport of food, water and fuel, and Baghdad airport was shut down until Monday.
"Everything has been going well so far, with very few incidents," top UN election official Carina Perelli told reporters. "The operation is running smoothly."
In the northern city of Mosul, men with assault rifles warned voters that a polling station would be attacked, and handed out leaflets depicting a donkey voting in front of a figure of Uncle Sam.
The US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said that if the constitution is adopted, if the December elections proceed smoothly and if enough Iraq security forces can be trained, the US military presence could begin to decrease next year.
"Of course it will depend on the circumstances, but it can happen as early as early to mid next year," he said.
Polls opened at 7am and 5,617 stations were operating of a total 6,235, Lami said. Voting is scheduled to close at 5pm.
The Iraqi electoral commission said 52,000 official observers would oversee the vote, and since political parties were also authorized to attend, the total number could reach up to 116,000.
HONG KONG SECURITY: The president blasted regulations requiring Taiwanese agents or political organizations to provide information on their Hong Kong-related activities President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) yesterday warned of countermeasures should controversial Chinese national security legislation imposed on Hong Kong undermine or harm Taiwanese interests. Article 43 of the legislation empowers the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to serve written notices to Taiwanese political organizations or individual agents to furnish information on their Hong Kong-related activities, including their personal particulars, finances, assets, expenditure and capital in the territory. Failure to comply or providing false or incomplete information can result in a fine of HK$100,000 (US$12,903) or imprisonment of six months or two years respectively. Tsai said that Taiwan would keep a close watch on how
PROBE LAUNCHED: An officer who served as a supervisor in the drill died in an apparent suicide after the accident, which was caused by unexpected waves Two marines who were on Friday injured in a military exercise in the waters off Kaohsiung passed away yesterday, Navy Command said. The marines — surnamed Tsai (蔡), 26, and a sergeant surnamed Chen (陳), 36 — were in a seven-member Marine Corps team that encountered rough seas during a simulated response to enemy forces landing on Taiwan. Their rubber craft overturned in waters off Taoziyuan (桃子園) beach in Zuoying District (左營), injuring four of the marines. They were rushed to hospital, where three of them — Tsai, Chen and a 34-year-old sergeant — were taken to an intensive care unit
MORAL COURAGE: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged the global community to face China’s intention to subdue Taiwan and reject such irrational requests The Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday strongly condemned the Chinese government for meddling with US officials’ interactions with Taiwan after FBI Director Christopher Wray revealed China’s efforts to discourage US officials from visiting Taiwan. The greatest long-term threat to the US’ information security and intellectual property, as well as its economic vitality, is China’s counterintelligence and economic espionage operations, Wray told a video event at the Hudson Institute in Washington. Beijing is engaged in a highly sophisticated and maligning foreign influence campaign, with methods that include bribery, blackmail and covert deals, he said. Giving an example, Wray said that when a US official
‘SIGNAL TO ALLIES’: The US Navy’s exercises are not in response to those carried out by China, the commander of the strike group led by the USS ‘Ronald Reagan’ said Two US aircraft carriers were yesterday conducting exercises in the disputed South China Sea, the US Navy said as China also carried out military drills that have been criticized by the US Department of Defense and neighboring states. China and the US have accused each other of stoking tension in the waterway at a time of strained relations over everything from COVID-19 to trade to Hong Kong. The USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan were carrying out operations and exercises in the South China Sea “to support a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the navy said in a statement. It did not say exactly