BAGHDAD, Iraq – At the Baratha mosque in Baghdad’s Shiite neighborhood of Utifiyah, the preacher’s voice rose as he punctuated his Friday sermon with passionate exhortations to Shiites to vote “yes” in Saturday’s referendum on Iraq’s new constitution.

“Tomorrow we will open the doors of freedom with our own hand! We have an appointment with the terrorists and extremists!” proclaimed Jalaludin Sagheer, a prominent Shiite cleric and legislator, to which his congregation responded with shouts of “Yes, yes to the constitution!”

Half a mile away, on the opposite bank of the Tigris river, a different message rang out across the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya. There, thousands of worshipers spilled out onto the streets after Friday prayers at the Abu Hanifa mosque chanting, “No, no to the constitution. No, no to occupation,” in an equally passionate display of determination to defeat the document in the referendum.

Nine months after Iraqis braved bullets and bombs to cast ballots in their first democratic election, they are preparing to head to the polls again Saturday. And on the eve of this latest milestone on Iraq’s journey to a still uncertain future, the country once again is deeply divided, between the Shiites and Kurds who support the constitution and Sunni Arabs who reject it.

Reprising the massive security operation for January’s election, the nation’s borders have been sealed, the airport is closed, and a shoot-on-sight curfew was imposed against vehicle traffic until Sunday morning, to guard against the threat of suicide bombers. Iraq’s 15.5 million registered voters will once again have to walk to the polls.

On Friday night, Baghdad was plunged into darkness after insurgents sabotaged power lines, The Associated Press reported. The loss of power, which occurred just after sundown, also cut off water service. Outages are daily events across Iraq, but this one affected a broader area of the capital.

The outcome of the referendum is considered a foregone conclusion; any result other than a “yes” would be considered a major upset, because Shiite and Kurdish legislators heavily influenced the document and are urging their constituents to vote “yes.” The two communities account for around 80 percent of the population, and most Shiites and Kurds can be counted on to support their leaders.

Whether this will be an exercise that brings at least some form of unity to the country, or whether it will only serve to exacerbate the deep sectarian divides that have emerged since the last election is the biggest question mark looming over the vote.

A last-minute constitutional amendment that will allow the document to be modified after December’s elections won the support of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the biggest Sunni party. But the move has not gone down well with many Sunnis, and the community that largely boycotted January’s election also goes into this poll deeply divided.

Three offices of the Islamic Party were bombed Friday, and a fourth, in the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah, was attacked by a mob and burned, according to Islamic Party spokesman Alaa Mekki, underscoring the tensions that have arisen within the Sunni community over the party’s decision to support the constitution.

In contrast with January, however, this time around members of the Sunni minority are expected to turn out in large numbers, to reassert their presence on the political scene after their boycott of the earlier vote left them shut out of power.

“We are going to participate in large numbers, because the oppression and marginalization that the Sunnis have seen in this period are unprecedented in decades – the random killings, the disappearances, the arrests and assassinations,” said Sheik Alaa Mohammed, a Sunni preacher with the Call, Fatwa and Guidance Association, a radical religious organization.

“But for sure we are going to vote “no,”‘ he added. “This constitution will create sectarianism and divide the country.”

Sunnis say they are deeply concerned by clauses that would allow Iraq’s provinces to form autonomous regions, something that Sunnis fear risks dismantling the state of Iraq.

In the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah, which U.S. Marines wrested from insurgents during some of the fiercest fighting of the war last November, most imams used their Friday sermons to urge their followers to vote “no,” said John Kael Weston, the U.S. Embassy’s representative in the town.

He predicted a sizable turnout of “tens of thousands” of the city’s 125,000 registered voters Saturday, but he said Fallujah political leaders are pessimistic that they will be able to garner enough votes to block the charter. For that to happen, the opposition will have to muster a two-thirds majority of no votes in three of Iraq’s 18 provinces, and Sunnis dominate in only three provinces.

Turnout among Shiite and Kurdish voters may be lower than it was during the last election, however, and at least some Shiites interviewed in Baghdad said they will not be casting ballots this time because they are disillusioned with the experience of democracy so far.

“There is a giant disappointment which cannot be solved,” said Saba Abul-Satar, who works as a female body searcher at the holy Shiite shrine of Kadhamiya. “Now we have become the world’s capital of terrorism, death is increasing day by day, and I have a very bad feeling that this referendum will not produce a good result, that there will be a reaction by the insurgents after this constitution and that the situation will be worse than it is now.”

But the mood among Shiite voters was generally upbeat, with most saying they looked forward to the opportunity to vote “yes” and move the process forward.

Qahtan Adnan al-Musawi, 28, who was shopping for a cell phone in the neighborhood of Mansour, said he was determined to vote “yes,” regardless of what the Shiite political or religious leadership instructed.

“I’m supporting this constitution only for one reason – we want stability,” he said. “Enough violence. We want peace.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.