Voters said to hunt for polling sites in west Iraq

10/14/2005 7:34:56 PM

RAMADI, Iraq (Reuters) - Hours before a crucial referendum on a new constitution, voters in western Iraq, where many are expected to say "No," were asking themselves a troubling question: where are the polling stations?

Anbar, Iraq's largest province, runs from Baghdad to border Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia and is also the heartland of the Sunni-led insurgency. Much of the population is expected to vote against the U.S.-backed constitution on Saturday.

U.S. troops have run a series of operations across the province in the past three weeks, trying to hunt down guerrillas and prepare the generally lawless region for the vote.

They said on Friday conditions were now set across the area, including in cities such as Hit and Haditha, the former rebel headquarters of Falluja, and Ramadi, the provincial capital.

Hussein al-Hindawi, the head of Iraq's Electoral Commission, which is organizing the vote, said there were 77 polling centers in Ramadi and around 30 in Falluja, and said that if people couldn't find them, they should call the commission.

Despite those assurances, Anbar residents and officials were not convinced, saying the lack of easily identifiable polling centers meant discrimination against potential "No" voters.

"NO" VOTES MARGINALISED?

"The Americans intended to isolate the cities in western Iraq to prevent the huge Sunni population from voting," said Thair al-Hadeethi, a human rights activist from Haditha.

In Ramadi, a group of residents said they had walked around their neighborhood looking for a voting center and not found one. Parts of Ramadi are essentially in rebel hands.

A Western diplomat in Baghdad said he expected a fair turnout in Anbar, where most voters boycotted elections in January with just two percent turning up on the day.

If two-thirds of voters in three of Iraq's 18 provinces vote "No" in the referendum then the constitution will be rejected, even if more than half of all voters nationwide say "Yes."

Anbar, where more than 90 percent of the population is Sunni Arab, is likely to be the province with the strongest "No" vote.

Despite their displeasure with the constitution, which they see as favoring Iraq's majority Shi'ites and ethnic Kurds -- many of whom are expected to vote "Yes" -- Anbar residents still appeared keen to express their disapproval via the ballot box.

"This is a Crusaders' constitution," said Yassir al-Dulaimi, 40, an engineer from Ramadi. "Those who wrote it are people making a living and working for the favor of the occupier and for their own benefit, not for the favor of the country."

Clerics in mosques in Ramadi and Haditha urged people to reject the draft charter, and residents talked about leaflets circulated in the streets calling on voters to vote "No."

"The constitution is illegal," said Mohammed Hussein, 45, the owner of household appliances shop. "If the Americans want to make it legal then they should first release all the detainees held at U.S. prisons and stop killing innocents."

Mosques in Falluja urged people on Friday to cast "No" votes. Sunni religious groups, including the influential Muslim Clerics Association, have made similar calls.

"There are no voting centers in cities like Haditha, Hit, Rawa, Qaim, Ana, Baghdadi and the villages around them," Mahmoud Salman al-Ani, a human rights activist in Ramadi, said on Friday, listing locations across western Anbar province.

"There aren't actually any voting centers or even voting sheets in these cities ... Nobody knows how and where to vote if they decide to," he said of the predominantly Sunni Arab region.