Lack of information, poll access may hinder voting for rural Iraqis
TIKRIT, Iraq — Mud huts and concrete cottages dot the rocky expanses of baked earth between Tikrit and Beiji, in the heart of Sunni Iraq. Most of the families here farm watermelons or vegetables, while a few own herds of sheep.
Ask them about the Iraqi draft constitution, and they will ask more mundane questions in return: When will our road be paved? When will the power lines be fixed?
Foreign observers are hoping that a large Sunni turnout will legitimize the Saturday constitutional referendum and bring unity to a country that some fear is tearing at the seams of its Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish identities.
The national government is campaigning heavily for a “yes” vote, while north central Iraq’s Salah ad Din provincial government is merely urging participation. Neither plea appears to be reaching many of the farmers.
Lack of information
“The problem is, we have no idea what the constitution is about,” said Ali Hussain, who lives on a route patrolled regularly by the 1st Brigade Troops Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division, based at Forward Operating Base Speicher.
Last week, Hussain invited the troops into his living room, a bare concrete room with colorful rugs and cushions lining the sides. In one corner, a television showed a dancing woman on a show resembling a pan-Arabic version of “American Idol.”
Hussain hadn’t heard anyone talking about the constitution’s details. His claims failed to convince “Nick,” the battalion’s interpreter.
“I don’t believe him,” Nick said. “I have the same satellite TV setup. Everyday, people on TV tell them about what is good in the constitution for this sect, what is bad for another sect.”
Nick confronted Hussain in loud Arabic. After a few minutes, he gave up.
“He says they must have been watching other channels,” Nick said.
None of the eight farmers encountered on the patrol had read the constitution, although some held strong views about it. Part of the problem is poor education, said 1st Lt. Blaine Sellman, 27, of Mountain Home, Idaho.
“Many of these farmers on the south side of our patrol area don’t know how to read or write,” Sellman said. “Their kids don’t go to school. It’s really difficult when you give them medical attention, because no one knows how to read the pill bottles.”
Skepticism about politics
On the north side of FOB Speicher, the houses and farms get larger.
Hamid Khidair lives in a modern concrete house with thin pillars supporting a covered porch. A tract of freshly cut grass stretches across the front yard. Several trees — a mark of wealth here — provide shade, including a palm tree with dozens of ripening yellow dates.
“You don’t get a house like this out here without having had some connections with the Baathists,” Nick said.
Khidair said he knew all about the constitution. After further questioning, he admitted he had not read the document.
“I know it’s no good because I don’t trust the guys who wrote it,” he said. “And yes, I’ll vote.”
Iraqis in some of the province’s city centers shared Khidair’s skepticism, according to Salah ad Din Newspaper, a coalition-funded, Iraqi-run publication.
In an unscientific September poll of 400 Iraqis taken in eight cities, the majority said that sections of the constitution encouraged sectarianism. Sixty-three percent said language banning the Baath party should be removed. All but eight of those questioned said they would vote in the referendum.
Getting to the polls
Rural residents do not expect to vote in such large numbers, saying they weren’t sure if they could because of planned curfew and traffic restrictions.
A curfew is scheduled from Oct. 13 to Oct. 17, from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., but not during voting hours. Traffic will be cordoned off from city centers. Rural voters must park before the cordon and walk to the nearest polling station.
Mahir Naif says those difficulties could keep him home Saturday. Naif is less concerned about high-minded ideals such as federal checks and balances than he is about the faulty gas lines running to his home. He says he hasn’t been able to power his water pump for the past week.
Without knowing the details, Naif says he hopes any new constitution will address public safety and avoid breaking the country into disparately wealthy regions.
“Before there were no problems about religious sects,” Naif said. “There was no, ‘You are Sunni,’ ‘You are Shiite,’ ‘You are Kurd.’ The political parties are making those kinds of problems. They need to realize that we are just one Iraq.”