STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep, with Renee Montagne.
A four-day national holiday begins today in Iraq. That means days of waiting until a vote that could affect the country's future. Iraqis hold a referendum on a proposed constitution this weekend, and preparations continue for possible violence. Government offices have closed, the international borders close tomorrow, and so will the borders between provinces. A curfew is in effect. US and Iraqi forces have been building barriers around polling places, concrete and concertina wire to protect against attack, and 156,000 US troops are in position.
We're going to get two perspectives this morning on the security situation and the political situation, and we'll start with a call to Baghdad to reporter Ellen Knickmeyer of The Washington Post.
Welcome to the program.
Ms. ELLEN KNICKMEYER (The Washington Post): Thank you.
INSKEEP: What does it feel like on the streets of Baghdad today?
Ms. KNICKMEYER: I was out this morning. The streets are pretty empty. It's--you see a few kids playing on bikes. You see a few women walking along with groceries and there's some--there's a few people out, but most of the stores and most of the schools and most of everything else is closed here. They're shut down and there's, like, lots of dust flying down the empty streets.
INSKEEP: Do you see a lot of troops or police out?
Ms. KNICKMEYER: You know, oddly enough, it seems like there's almost fewer than normal. There's fewer checkpoints. I'm sure they're going to ramp up tomorrow and the coming days, but maybe because there's less traffic, there's fewer checkpoints.
INSKEEP: Now, Ellen, US and Iraqi leaders had been pressing for changes, last-minute changes to this constitution. They actually got some, an attempt to appease Sunni leaders and get them onboard. What are, very briefly, some of the changes and how, if at all, have they changed the situation?
Ms. KNICKMEYER: The main change is that it postpones a discussion on what Sunnis oppose most in the constitution, which is kind of reshaping Iraq into a loose federal system of government with highly independent regions--Shia and Kurdish regions--and it seems to have put off discussion on that till the next National Assembly, and Sunnis think they'll have more representatives in the next National Assembly. One thing that's interesting to see is that the Sunni are actually engaged. They may be in this for--purely to defeat this constitution, but they're definitely--there's much more of them than the January elections engaged in this process, interested in this process.
INSKEEP: Is that good news for the US side if the Sunnis are at least participating?
Ms. KNICKMEYER: That is. I mean, the effort has been to draw them into the political process. Interestingly, Americans had been saying openly they hoped--that a Sunni turnout would be bad news for them, that they--because that could actually defeat the constitution. But what this compromise offered to the Sunnis in the past couple of days could have done is it could have split the Sunni opposition so that some of the Sunnis will actually vote yes, and by doing that it may, you know, kind of weaken the government--any Sunni chance of defeating the constitution.
INSKEEP: So some Sunni leaders have said they now want to participate in the election and want their people to vote yes. Who's still on the other side, either wanting to disrupt the election or trying to defeat the constitution in that election?
Ms. KNICKMEYER: The main--the most influential group of Sunni in Iraq, you know, some scholars ...(unintelligible), it seemed to waver a little bit yesterday and said everybody should make up their mind, but now today they've come solidly against the constitution. They say Sunnis should turn out and they should vote no. And interestingly, even insurgent groups in the west have said, `We won't attack on this day, on election day, on referendum day because we want Sunnis to be able to go out there and vote no.'
INSKEEP: Really? So in some of the most dangerous provinces, you might actually have safe polling places?
Ms. KNICKMEYER: You know, that's going to be one of the most interesting things to see is how it shakes out in the Sunni areas, but early on this summer--I mean, around seven of the insurgent groups had promised to hold off on attacks on Americans that day just so that Sunnis would be able to vote.
INSKEEP: Ellen, thanks very much.
Ms. KNICKMEYER: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: Ellen Knickmeyer is a reporter for The Washington Post in Baghdad.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.