Iraqis Turn Out to Vote on Constitution

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Millions of Iraqi voters came out this weekend to vote in a referendum on whether to adopt a new national constitution. Brian Naylor spoke to Washington Post reporter Steve Fainaru, who is embedded with the U.S. military. He was in Balad and surrounding villages where Iraqis cast their votes.

BRIAN NAYLOR, host:

Millions of Iraqi voters turned out this weekend for a referendum on whether to adopt a new national constitution. According to the Associated Press, election officials in Baghdad said that preliminary indications point to the constitution being adopted. But there was a large Sunni Arab turnout, with most of those voters reportedly opposing the draft charter. With tight security and a driving ban designed to thwart car bombings, there was little violence at voting polaces, but five American soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Ramadi yesterday. Washington Post reporter Steve Fainaru has been following the election in Balad, Iraq, north of the capital. Earlier this morning he told us about what he saw yesterday.

Mr. STEVE FAINARU (The Washington Post): I was embedded with the US military, the 5th Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment here, and they--I followed them around as they were supporting the referendum, and I spent the morning out in Ishaqi, which is a small Sunni Arab town, and by the time I got there in the morning, the polls had just opened and the turnout was already pretty heavy. I was in Iraq in January for the parliamentary elections, and I was in Mosul, which is a Sunni Arab city, and I saw exactly four voters the whole day, and yesterday I saw four voters in the first few seconds and the people were streaming into the city. They were walking in groups. There was a driving ban inside the city, so many were showing up at the front entrance to the city and then walking the rest of the way through Iraqi police checkpoints, Iraqi army checkpoints, and then finally to the polling center itself.

NAYLOR: Were you able to talk with any voters and, if so, what did they tell you?

Mr. FAINARU: I did. It was interesting. When I got there, the people were enthusiastic about voting. Not everyone was exactly sure what they were voting for. Virtually no one I had talked to had actually read the constitution. Most of them said that they had been told to vote by either their tribal leaders or their religious leaders. Unanimously in the Sunni Arab area in Ishaqi where I was, people were telling me they were going to vote no.

One thing that I felt was interesting was that outside the polling center, there were literally dozens of people who had been turned away at this one polling site. They had, when they got there, been told that they were expected to vote at another site, and when they talked about this, there was a great deal of suspicion surrounding why they had been turned away. Many people told me they thought that it was--that it had been arranged by the Iraqi Electoral Commission to try to keep Sunni Arabs from voting. It fed into what I think is a widespread frustration throughout the country within the Sunni Arab community about what they perceive as their impending marginalization because there's the constitution.

NAYLOR: I'm curious. You said you were embedded with a US Army unit. What was their role yesterday? Did they kind of stay in the background or were they providing security at the polling places?

Mr. FAINARU: It's really interesting. You know, the US military went to great lengths to portray the referendum as being very much an Iraqi-orchestrated affair, but when you really got into the weeds here, you realize the referendum was essentially being coordinated by the military and that the security that was being provided was assured by the military, that in Balad and the surrounding villages there were overflights by F-16 fighter jets and Apache attack helicopters, both during the delivery of the ballots and during the referendum itself. The military was not going on to the polling sites, but they were maintaining a very close distance to make sure that if anything happened, that they could rush on the scene and help out.

The unit that I was with, I was traveling with the battalion commander, and when we got to Ishaqi, there was this issue with the polling site, and he had been there basically just to monitor the situation and check out the polling conditions, but when he got there he was quickly dragged into this snafu with the registration, and he grew visibly frustrated because I think that it was--there was this hope that he wouldn't have to be involved in micromanaging the election, but that's exactly what happened.

NAYLOR: Washington Post reporter Steve Fainaru joined us from Balad in Iraq.

Thanks very much, Steve.

Mr. FAINARU: Thank you.

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