Before Iraq's historic vote, attention turns to safety

Security tightens to prevent attacks during Saturday's constitutional vote.

Only a sprinkling of motorists ventured onto Baghdad's usually crowded streets Thursday, passing rows of shuttered shops as Iraq hunkered down two days before the constitutional referendum.

Concerned that insurgents may try to disrupt Saturday's referendum, a nationwide security lockdown and overnight curfew has begun. Government offices closed and checkpoints sprang up along highways, city streets, and polling places. Wednesday night, US forces in Baghdad raided suspected militant hideouts.

There has been considerable violence in the lead-up to Saturday's referendum. At least 422 people have been killed in insurgent attacks in the past 18 days, according to the Associated Press. And more than a dozen Iraqi police and soldiers have been killed this week in roadside bombings, drive-by shootings, and car bombs in Baghdad, Mosul, and Fallujah.

Insurgents in the often-violent Diyala province have already attacked some polling places. A voting center south of Baqouba was struck by small arms fire Thursday night, injuring and possibly killing several Iraqi police officers, according to US military personnel in the area.

Starting Friday travel between the country's provinces will be forbidden, and Iraq's borders and port will be closed. Many schools were already closed this week because they will be used as polling places.

"Life has kind of stopped," says Faidhl Hamid at a Baghdad computer game shop. But he and several friends say they're willing to accept the inconveniences to ensure their safety.

Far stricter measures are planned for election day. Voters will have to go on foot to cast "yes" or "no" vote on the permanent constitution. With the exception of a few government vehicles, cars are banned from the roads.

Similar steps worked well in January's election, which saw fewer attacks than a normal day. That experience has bolstered the confidence of many Iraqis in a safe weekend vote.

"I trust the security plan put in place by the police and Army," says Sarmad Falah, a Baghdad resident. But "all roads are closed and its difficult to reach your destination now."

While the measures help prevent car bombs, there is little security forces can do to prevent suicide bombers from wandering in among the crowds of voters. Polling places will be reinforced with concrete blast walls and concertina wire to minimize the effect of any explosions, says Ministry of Interior spokesman Adnan Abdul-Rahman. "We will do all we have to do and the rest depends on the cooperation of the people with us" to report suspicious activity, he says. "God will protect Iraq."

But the possibilities of attacks during the constitutional referendum don't cause much concern among many Iraqis who face unrelenting violence everyday. "I expect that a lot of people will go to the referendum and the reason is to defy terrorism, as happened in the previous election," says Ali Sadiq.

Mr. Sadiq, a Shiite, also says he hopes a last-minute agreement between one Sunni political party and the ruling Shiite and Kurdish parties will boost turnout by allaying Sunni concerns. Many Sunnis have said they would vote against the charter, which they feel doesn't represent their interests. The deal struck Wednesday night makes it potentially easier for Sunnis to make changes in the constitution after it passes.

As in the January election, successive rings of security will surround polling places. Iraqi police will handle security immediately around the polling places with Iraqi soldiers providing a second ring of checkpoints, and the outer ring of security will be US and foreign troops.

But for many people living near them, the polling stations look more like giant targets. "Yes, there is concern. My house is near one of the voting centers but what can I do? Leave my house?" asks Mr. Hamid.

While few Iraqis have seen one of the 5 million copies of the constitution that were distributed this week, electoral commission fliers describing how to vote in the referendum were plentiful in Baghdad. Each depicted people waiting in line at polling places, having their identification checked, and safely going into the voting booth.

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