FALLUJAH, Iraq (AP) – By voting against the constitution, Ammar Mustafa wanted to do more than reject a document he thinks will divide Iraq. The young Sunni Arab wanted to show the Americans that he didn’t appreciate what he saw as U.S. meddling in his country.

“This is a contribution to democracy my way, not the American way,” he said.

He and other Sunni Arabs voters turned out in surprising numbers Saturday, many of them heeding calls of their clerics to reject the charter. If two-thirds of voters in three Sunni provinces reject the constitution, it will be defeated, even if it wins a majority nationwide.

But even if minority Sunnis fail to block the charter’s ratification, a strong “no” vote within the community – which dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein – raises questions about whether the charter will fulfill Washington’s goal of luring fighters away from the Sunni-led insurgency.

Many Sunnis oppose the constitution because they consider it an American-designed instrument aimed at dividing the country and benefiting Shiites and Kurds.

Turnout in western areas of heavily Sunni Anbar province – the front line of the insurgency – was low, with most residents huddling in homes as polls stood nearly empty. However, so few Shiites and Kurds live in Anbar that a low turnout there hardly matters if the overwhelming majority of those who did vote cast ballots against the charter.

Yet even a modest turnout was a victory of sorts: In the January parliamentary election, only one person voted in Haditha, according to Marine Capt. Shannon Neller of New York.

Turnout was much stronger in Fallujah, the Sunni insurgent stronghold seized last November by American forces in some of the most intense urban combat of the Iraq war.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad saw the Fallujah turnout as a sign that “we’re moving in the right direction.”

He said Fallujah’s leaders had urged him to increase the number of Anbar representatives in the next parliament.

It was unclear whether the new Sunni enthusiasm for politics would continue if the constitution wins approval. One Sunni party called on its followers to vote for the charter, but most Sunni clerics had urged their followers to reject it.

Indeed, what drove Fallujah’s Sunnis to the polls was a determination to block the charter’s ratification. Several complained that the Sunni decision to boycott the January election was a mistake, because it gave Shiites and Kurds a dominant role in Iraqi politics and in the drafting of the constitution.

To avoid repeating that error, Fallujah’s Sunnis marched to the polls past drab buildings riddled with bullet holes and past crumbling walls bearing graffiti hailing Saddam.

U.S. Marines officers heard from Iraqi elections officials that 189,000 people voted in Fallujah and the villages surrounding it Saturday, but there was no firm figure on the number of registered voters in that area. In comparison, about 7,000 people voted in January – though at that time there were only an estimated 15,000 eligible voters there because so many residents had fled the U.S. offensive in the city.

“The more successful the political process is, the faster the (Americans) will leave,” said Fallujah police chief Salah Khalil.

“The constitution has given gains to the Shiites and Kurds because they have the majority in parliament because we were absent from the polls,” said Mouwaffak Kamel, 32, who voted “no.”

It was impossible to tell whether residents in western Anbar stayed away from polls because of apathy, fear of insurgent attacks, or because the location of polling centers was announced just minutes before polls opened due to security measures.

“I wanted to participate in the referendum,” said Hamid al-Ani, 35, a grocer in Ramadi where there was almost no voting. “But I was deterred by the bad security situation where nobody can leave his house without risking his life.”

Less than an hour before voting started, U.S. military Humvees rumbled through the dusty, litter-strewn streets of Haditha announcing the location of polling stations over loudspeakers.

A U.S. tank, concrete barriers and metal detectors were positioned at the bottom of the steep pathway leading up to the polling station. Iraqi soldiers roamed the rest of the complex.

“I’m 75 years old. Everything is finished for me. But I’m going to vote because I want a good future for my children,” said Saeed Ahmed Fliha, walking with the help of a relative and Iraqi soldier.

One teenage boy meekly approached the election center and presented the identification card of his mother, who had stayed at home because of the insurgent threats.

After voting in her place, he said his family was following directions from their sheik who had urged fellow tribesmen to reject the charter.

Hamoudi Ibrahim Mutub also said he was following his tribe’s instructions – by voting “yes.” The weary man had driven from a nearby town, parked his car at a checkpoint and walked over a mile to the polls.



EDITORS: Associated Press writers Mariam Fam reported from Fallujah and Antonio Castaneda from Haditha.

AP-ES-10-15-05 1908EDT


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