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Low Ballot Turnout Expected in Volatile Sunni Region

Under siege and wary of politics, many residents will avoid the constitutional referendum.
By Daud Salman

Political leaders and residents in the volatile, mainly Sunni Anbar governorate of western Iraq say they expect a poor turnout in the upcoming constitutional referendum.


Sunni Arabs are largely expected to boycott the vote, or if they do come to the polls, to reject the constitution. A no vote by two-thirds of voters in three out of Iraq 's 18 governorates would mean a rejection of the constitutional draft.


Insurgent groups in Ramadi, the provincial capital which marks the southwestern corner of the so-called Sunni Triangle, have distributed leaflets demanding that residents boycott the referendum and threatening those who do decide to go to the polls.


Many in this predominantly Sunni Arab region say they are disgusted with the political process and have no intention of voting anyway.


Banners throughout the city read, “No to the referendum. No to the elections.” In addition to the constitutional plebiscite, a national parliamentary election is scheduled for the middle of December.


Voter registration in Iraq ended in late September, but the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, IECI, decided that, as happened in the January elections, voters in most parts of Anbar will be able to register right up until referendum day.


Many potential voters say they are not interested. Turnout in the January elections was low at less than two per cent of Anbar province’s 1.2 million residents.


"Regardless of insurgent warnings, we don't support the constitution,” said Abu-Gaith al-Duleimi, a university professor from Ramadi. “Participating in the constitutional ballot will leave room for fraud: if we say no to the constitution, that can be changed to a yes."


United States and Iraqi forces have carried out two massive military operations against insurgent strongholds in Anbar province towns along the river Euphrates this month, causing residents to flee their homes – thus making it nearly impossible for them to register to vote in the October 15 referendum.


US forces blocked off Ramadi, home to about 400,000 people, as well as bridges to the city during the recent operations in the province, residents reported.


Other areas in western Iraq’s Anbar province near Syria fared worse. Relief workers estimated that nearly 2,000 families in Haditha and al-Qaim, as well as surrounding villages, fled their homes during military operations there. Dozens of civilians were hurt in the fighting in both towns, the United Nation’s IRIN news agency reported, citing sources at local hospital.


US forces, backed by Iraqi troops, said their operations focused on ridding the region of suspected al-Qaeda fighters in Anbar. They also said they wanted to secure the area ahead of the elections, as the Iraqi government has little control in most of the province’s cities and towns.


Already suspicious that the proposed constitution will empower Kurds and Shia and marginalise Sunni Arabs, some in Anbar said they suspected the operations were timed to create instability in Sunni strongholds ahead of the referendum.


“The registration process is impossible in view of the ongoing military operations,” said Sheikh Ayad al-Fayadh, leader of the al-Badran tribe in al-Jazeera, a town near Ramadi. “I think the military operations are being deliberately conducted at this time so that Sunni Arabs will vote no to the constitution and won’t participate in the forthcoming elections.”


The security situation in Ramadi remains so unstable that the election commission has set up only three registration centres in the city. They are under US military protection, but the American presence there is anything but reassuring for residents.


Hameed Khalaf, a merchant from Ramadi, said, “There are no policemen in the city and the government has not rebuilt the central police station since it was destroyed by insurgents last year. There aren’t even any traffic police in the governorate. How can citizens vote? Who would protect them if they were in danger?"


“I haven’t heard of anyone registering in Ramadi,” said Samir al-Duleimi, a university student in the city. “I won’t vote, and my colleagues have no desire to vote.


“The threat of being killed and arrested is always there. We have no future except ambiguity and threats. If the Americans keep us safe, the insurgents may then make us pay for it.”


According to the London-based newspaper Azzaman, IECI chief Adil al-Lami has said the commission has opened 94 polling stations in Anbar, but none so far in the western areas where military operations have been under way. But he promised these too would be open by referendum day, protected by US and Iraqi forces.


Fallujah, a Sunni Arab city of about 350,000 residents, is located 60 kilometres west of Baghdad in Anbar province. Abdul-Sattar al-Jumaili, a member of the city council, affirmed that more than 50 per cent of eligible voters have registered.


Fareed Ayar, a member of the electoral commission, said registration is running more smoothly in Fallujah than it did during the January elections. He also said people there appear to be more willing to participate in the political process.


Residents of the city seem to be keen on participating in the referendum and subsequent elections in the hope that gaining political power will help them rebuild their city. US and Iraqi forces carried out major offensives against insurgents in the city in November 2004 that destroyed perhaps one-fifth of the buildings.


Reflecting the views of some residents, local Rasheed Muhammed said he would vote in the referendum “because I’d like to push the election process forward so that we can be compensated for all our material losses and moral damages".


Some leaders continue to hope that voter registration centres can still open in towns and cities that have been under siege.


Al-Haj Khidhir, an Anbar governorate council representative and a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, demanded that the government ease off military operations and allow local leaders to assume power, as a way of stabilising the region ahead of the referendum.


"Spreading a spirit of tolerance and avoiding instigating violence will significantly help the situation," he said.


Daud Salman is an IWPR trainee journalist in Iraq.


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