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Iraq: U.S., Iraqi Forces Tighten Security For Referendum

U.S. and Iraqi forces are tightening security in Iraq for the 15 October referendum on the draft constitution. Washington and Baghdad hope to duplicate the success they had minimizing insurgent attacks on voters during Iraq’s polls for an interim government earlier this year.

Prague, 14 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Baghdad is unusually quiet as strict security measures take effect ahead of Saturday’s referendum on the draft constitution.

Radio Free Iraq correspondent Moayed al-Haidari reports from Baghdad that car traffic has noticeably thinned in the city.

“The government has given four days of official holiday -- Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday -- so most people stay now at home before the referendum day, which is on Saturday [15 October]," al-Haidari said. "Baghdad seems since yesterday [13 October] very calm, the streets not much crowded, low traffic, there are some checkpoints in the streets for soldiers and police.”

He says police have already blocked access by car to many streets near the polling centers. That is to prevent bombing of the centers, many of which are surrounded by 1.2-meter-high concrete shields.

Other security measures already in place include an overnight curfew which began yesterday. Iraq’s borders are closed as of today and all travel between provinces has been stopped.

Al-Haidari said the security measures are due to tighten further tomorrow, as Iraqis go to some 6,000 polling centers around the country.

“Tomorrow will be a more special day. There will be no movement of [private] cars and the beginning of voting will be at 7 o’clock in the morning [0500 UTC] until 5 o’clock in the afternoon [1500 UTC]. There are very concentrated security procedures around the [polling] centers.”

The ban on all civilian car traffic extends from tonight to 16 October morning local time. It will duplicate measures imposed during Iraq’s national elections in January, which are widely believed to have prevented insurgents from using car bombs against voters.

During the 30 January elections for the National Assembly, insurgents killed at least 40 people. But the attacks were small-scale operations using mortars or suicide bombers wearing vests of explosives.

In the run-up to tomorrow’s referendum, insurgents have already sought to scare voters away from the polls with a string of attacks on civilians and on Iraq’s security forces.

The Associated Press reported that over the past 18 days at least 422 people have been killed across Iraq in roadside bombings, drive-by shootings, and car bombings.

The attacks include three nearly simultaneous car bombings that killed 105 people in Balad, north of Baghdad, on 29 September.

In the referendum, Iraq’s some 15 million voters will be asked to vote "yes" or "no" to the country’s first post-Saddam Hussein draft constitution.

The draft constitution will be adopted if a simple majority (50 percent plus 1) of voters cast a "yes" ballot.

But the draft charter will be rejected if two-thirds of those voting in three or more provinces vote "no."

The outcome of the referendum is uncertain because the drafting of the constitution was highly contentious. The draft was adopted by the Shi’ite- and Kurdish-dominated National Assembly last month over the objections of Arab Sunni members of the drafting committee.

Arab Sunni leaders have said they are particularly concerned that the draft constitution gives Iraq’s majority Shi’ite community the possibility to declare a self-rule region that includes Iraq’s richest oil fields. They warn that could prevent Arab Sunni areas from sharing in Iraq’s oil revenues or even lead to the breakup of the country.

But on 12 October, one prominent mostly Arab Sunni party -- the Iraqi Islamic Party -- endorsed the draft constitution in a last-minute deal with Shi’ite and Kurdish leaders. The deal provides for a review of the constitution after a new National Assembly is elected by the end of the year.

Correspondents report that in the wake of the deal, the Iraqi Islamic Party removed a banner from its Baghdad headquarters that had called on its supporters to vote "no" tomorrow.

But it remains unclear how many other Arab Sunni leaders will join the Iraqi Islamic Party in its new position.

Baghdad correspondent al-Haidari said that many areas of the city are covered with posters urging people to take part in the referendum. “If you move through the streets of Baghdad, you can always see some posters, some placards, some photos, asking people to go and take part in the referendum tomorrow, Saturday,” he said.

In Shi’ite areas of the capital, the posters and banners urge a "yes" vote. Preeminent Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has called on all Iraqis to vote to approve the draft charter.

But few referendum posters are visible in Arab Sunni neighborhoods. The powerful Muslim Clerics Association, which opposes the U.S. occupation of Iraq, has called for supporters to boycott the referendum or to vote "no."

Tomorrow’s referendum takes place during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when people fast during the day and often go to sleep very late at night. It is unclear whether that timing will have any impact on voter turnout.

For the latest news and analysis on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".

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