BAGHDAD (AP) – Hundreds of Iraqi police and army troops fanned out across Baghdad yesterday, setting up checkpoints and fortifying polling stations with barbed wire and blast barriers two days ahead of a historic constitutional referendum.
From the city’s Shiite stronghold of Kazimiyah to its southern approaches in the notorious “Triangle of Death,” the capital’s usually chaotic traffic was down to a tiny fraction. Many stores didn’t bother to open and others shuttered early ahead of a 10 p.m. curfew.
By nightfall, Baghdad’s streets were almost emptied of civilians. The large army and police presence, combined with the scarcity of people and vehicles, gave the city a disquieting calm.
Similar security precautions were in place across much of Iraq in anticipation of a spike in attacks by insurgents who want to derail the political process. Nearly 450 people have been killed in violence over the past 18 days. Even with no people on the streets, sharp divisions over the referendum were visible in Baghdad.
Hundreds of posters and banners urging a “yes” vote were plastered on virtually every wall and shop window in the Shiite district of Kazimiyah. Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has ordered his followers to approve the constitution.
In contrast, not a single referendum poster was visible in the Sunni district of Azamiyah, just across the Tigris River.
A banner by the Sunni Arab Iraqi Islamic Party urging a “no” vote was removed from where it hung a day earlier outside Azamiyah’s Grand Imam mosque. The party changed its stance after Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers agreed Wednesday to several amendments to the document designed to win Sunni Arab support in Saturday’s vote. Still, no new “yes” banner was on display in the district. Many other Sunni Arab parties still oppose the charter.
In the so-called Triangle of Death, a mainly Sunni area known for kidnappings and killings, there was no sign of posters either. Iraqi troops searched cars under the watchful eyes of comrades manning machine-gun positions. U.S. helicopters hovered over the area. Traffic on the road through the “triangle” was thin.
“I will vote ‘yes’ so as to isolate the troublemakers,” said Faisal Galab, a Sunni Arab sheik from the town of Youssifiyah, about 12 miles south of Baghdad. “I have asked my family and clan to vote ‘yes.'”
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch provided an upbeat assessment of the security situation ahead of the vote, arguing that the insurgent danger was far less than on the eve of the Jan. 30 parliamentary election. Also, Iraq’s security forces total 200,000 now, compared to 138,000 in January, Lynch said.