BAGHDAD, Oct 15 (AP): Iraqis went to the polls Saturday to give a "yes" or "no" to a new constitution aimed at defining democracy in a nation once ruled by Saddam Hussein and now sharply divided among its Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities.
The polls opened at 7 a.m., just hours after government workers managed to restore power lines that insurgents had sabotaged in the northern part of the country on Friday night, plunging the Iraqi capital into darkness and cutting off water supplies.
Iraqi soldiers and police ringed polling stations at schools, and driving was banned to stop suicide car bombings by Sunni-led insurgents determined to wreck the vote.
Baghdad was eerily quiet under clear blue skies at first, with only a few citizens seen walking to the schools, which were protected by concrete barriers and barbed wire.
But President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari were shown live on Al-Iraqiya television voting in a hall in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, where parliament and the US Embassy are based. After putting their paper ballots in white-and-black plastic boxes, both smiled and waved to the public.
"The constitution will pave the way for a national unity," said al-Jafaari. "It is a historical day, and I am optimistic that the Iraqis will say 'yes.'
Farid Ayar, a top official in the Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission, said voting was being conducted at all the country's 6,000 polling stations. The turnout had increased in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities by 9:30 a.m.
All voters marked their paper ballot "yes" or "no" under one question, written in Arabic and Kurdish: "Do you agree on the permanent constitution project?" After placing the ballots in the plastic boxes at the polling centres, the Iraqis had the forefinger of their right hands marked with violet ink to prevent multiple voting.
A roadside bomb exploded near a polling station in western Baghdad, wounding two policemen, and fighting was reported between militants and US soldiers in Ramadi, 115 kilometres (70 miles) west of Baghdad. No injuries were immediately reported there. Near the southern city of Basra, three men were arrested for attacking a polling station before it opened.
Nearly 450 people had been killed by Sunni-led insurgents in the 19 days before Saturday's vote, often by suicide car bombs, roadside bombs and drive-by shootings.
Iraqis remain deeply divided over the approximately 140-charter draft constitution they were voting on Saturday. The country's Shiite majority - some 60 per cent of its 27 million people - and the Kurds - another 20 per cent - support the charter, which provides them with autonomy in the regions where they are concentrated in the north and south.
Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on followers to go to the polls and back the constitution. A similar call during January parliamentary elections rallied millions of Shiites to vote.
AP adds from Washington: US President George W. Bush said Iraqis who vote Saturday on a new constitution for their country are striking a blow against terrorism with their ballots.
"This weekend's election is a critical step forward in Iraq's march toward democracy, and with each step the Iraqi people take, al-Qaida's vision for the region becomes more remote," the president said in his weekly radio address Saturday.
In the Democratic radio address, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark called the vote "an important political event" but "not the end of the story in Iraq." Clark said Bush was "long overdue in providing a plan to achieve Iraqi military sufficiency, to build domestic political consensus inside Iraq around a new government, to achieve regional political stability around Iraq, and to finally achieve an efficient reconstruction in Iraq."
The referendum in Iraq will decide the fate of a proposed charter hammered out in months of bitter negotiations and still opposed by many Sunni Arabs. Last minute amendments brought some in the disaffected minority on board, but not all.
To some Sunnis, the US-brokered deal to win Sunni support delays solving basic problems of power-sharing among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. They claim the agreement only papers over the cleavages in a religiously, ethnically and culturally mixed society.
Ratification will be fail if two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces vote "no." If adopted, the draft charter will provide the basis for a general election in two months for a full-term parliament.
The Bush administration sees success in the election as key to defeating the insurgency and such a defeat as necessary before phasing out the increasingly unpopular US military presence in Iraq.
Like Bush, Clark said a premature US withdrawal would reward terrorists, but Clark said "Americans are angry ... about the president's incompetence and his general unwillingness to acknowledge with some humility that he has made some terrible and tragic mistakes regarding the mission in Iraq."
He said Bush needs to spell out how many capable Iraqi forces are needed before US troops can come home, how quarrelling factions in Iraq can be reconciled and how to reconstruct Iraq with less corruption.
Bush said, "Al-Qaida intends to make Iraq a terrorist haven and a staging ground for attacks against other nations, including the United States."