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Smooth & quiet, Iraq votes on Constitution

Baghdad, Oct. 15 (Reuters): Up to 10 million Iraqis voted in a referendum today, protected by a vast security screen that deterred all but a few ineffectual insurgent attacks.

The Sunni Arab minority turned out in force for the first time since US troops toppled Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, bolstering the “No” vote against a Constitution drawn up by a Parliament elected in January and led by Shi’ites and Kurds.

Fighting and fear kept voters away in some Sunni cities in the west and north; confidence in a big “Yes” may have depressed turnout in Shi’ite and Kurdish areas. Security was tight.

Six Iraqi soldiers were killed in two attacks not clearly related to the election. Although three mortar rounds fell near one Baghdad voting site, the only people hurt while voting included several hit by bullets from nervous police and troops. Militants seized ballot boxes in one Baghdad voting station.

More than 40 people were killed during January’s vote in more than 100 insurgent attacks, including suicide bombings.

Supporters of the charter were quick to portray the vote by Sunnis, who mostly boycotted January’s election, as adding legitimacy to the US-sponsored process, even if they voted against; critics say a document intended to foster unity risks tearing the nation apart along religious and ethnic lines.

As in January, joyful or defiant voters waved index fingers stained with the purple ink that proved they had voted.

Turnout among the 15.5 million voters may have been around 10 million, Electoral Commission member Farid Ayar said. At least eight of 18 provinces saw turnout above 66 per cent, but in two or three, it was below 33 per cent, officials said.

Though counts got under way as soon as 10 hours of voting ended at 5 pm (local time), election officers said it may be a day or more before any official indication of the result.

But Iraq’s communal arithmetic and healthy turnouts in Shi’ite and Kurdish areas kept government officials fairly confident of a “Yes” vote in spite of Sunni defiance and some strong “No” voting among nationalist Shi’ites in the south.

There is a veto clause if two thirds of voters in three of 18 provinces reject the charter, but that seems unlikely.

“I voted ‘Yes’ because the Constitution will fire a bullet into the heart of terrorism,” said Raad Farraj in Baghdad’s poor Shi’ite stronghold of Sadr City, expressing the hopes of many in the 60-percent majority community, many of whose religious leaders had urged them to back the charter.

“I came here to participate and not make the same mistake we made at the last election,” said Yassin Humadi, 57, at a busy polling station in Falluja, a bastion of Sunni militancy. “We will not allow the others to control the Sunnis again.”

Sajida Mahmood, a 40-year-old Falluja housewife, said: “Every Iraqi who loves Iraq must vote ‘No’, because a ‘Yes’ means backing the Americans and their agents.”

Elsewhere in heavily Sunni Anbar province, however, clashes between militants and US and Iraqi forces in the provincial capital Ramadi and fear of fighting in other towns kept people away. No overall turnout figure was immediately available.

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