BAGHDAD, Oct 15 (AFP): Iraqis voted amid tight security Saturday in a landmark referendum on a constitution that aims to turn a new page on the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein.
Around 15.5 million Iraqis were registered to vote on the draft charter, which lays out a democratic framework for a new Iraq but has sharply divided the country's Shiite, Kurd and Sunni communities.
Sunni-backed insurgents have vowed to disrupt the democratic process and three Iraqi soldiers were killed in an explosion early Saturday near Saadiya, northeast of Baghdad as they were inspecting a polling station, an interior ministry source said.
Several polling stations in Baghdad were fired upon Friday and Saturday despite the strict security lockdown, and a sabotage attack on a power line cut electricity to Baghdad and the main southern city of Basra, plunging both into darkness late Friday.
The country's Kurdish President Jalal Talabani and Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari voted early inside Baghdad's heavily-protected Green Zone.
"I think the majority (of all Iraqis) will vote yes," said Talabani, who on Friday urged Sunni Arabs to choose politics over violence.
Many Sunnis, who make up about 20 percent of Iraq's 26 million population, fear federal provisions in the charter could lead to the break-up of Iraq and leave control of its vast oil wealth in the hands of Shiites and Kurds.
"Sunni Arab brothers should understand that their aspirations will be achieved through political action and not violence and terrorist acts," Talabani told the private Asharqia television channel late Friday.
Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari also voted inside the Green Zone, and said: "Today we are in transition, we are about to attain political stability built on a constitutional foundation."
He told CNN television: "The document as a whole is the best we managed to come up with and it does satisfy the need of this phase in particular."
On Wednesday, Iraqi leaders reached a deal approving last-minute additions to the draft in a bid to bring Sunnis on board, including the creation of a panel to consider further amendments after new elections on December 15.
Shortly after polls opened in Baghdad, dozens of men and women entered voting stations in separate lines. Squads of policemen checked identity papers and searched voters once about 200 meters (yards) away and a second time just outside the station.
A voter in southeastern Kut, Jamil Musawi, said the constitution "represents hope for Iraq even if some things are missing which will be addressed later."
Voters are being asked a single question: "Do You Approve the Draft Constitution of Iraq".
The charter requires a simple majority to be approved, but it will be rejected if two-thirds of the votes in at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces are "no."
Underscoring hostility among Sunni Arabs to the document, posters outside a prominent Sunni mosque in Baghdad showed Iraq cut up by bloody sabres held by hands attached to US and Iranian flags.
"No to the constitution that tears the unity of Iraq," it declared.
In western Iraq's volatile Sunni-dominated Al-Anbar province, 54 voting stations of a total 94 were operating, chief electoral officer Adil al-Lami said early Friday.
In Hilla, south of Baghdad, loudspeakers at Shiite mosques blared: "The constitution is Iraq's salvation," backing the recommendation of Iraq's revered top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
US attack helicopters occasionally buzzed overhead in Baghdad, dropping green and red flares, but the streets were almost deserted. US troops were doing perimeter checks at polls, and Iraqi forces were following up with two checks of their own.
"Everything has been going well so far, with very few incidents," said Carina Perelli, the top UN election official.
"The operation is running soothly, and every problem can be corrected," she told AFP.
In the northern town of Mosul, men with assault rifles warned voters that a polling station would be attacked, and handed out leaflets depicting an donkey (ass) voting in front of a figure of Uncle Sam.
The US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad said that if the constitution is adopted, if parliamentary elections in December proceed smoothly and if enough Iraq security forces are trained, the US military presence could begin to decrease sometime next year.
"Of course it will depend on the circumstances, but it can happen as early as early to mid next year," he said.
US Vice President Dick Cheney told a television station that the United States expected Iraqis to come out in droves to vote "yes".
Security measures ordered for the vote include a four-day national holiday that began Thursday, an extended curfew, a ban on civilians carrying weapons and a ban Saturday on the use of personal vehicles.
International borders have been closed to all traffic except the transport of food, water and fuel, and Baghdad airport was shut down until Monday.
Polls opened at 7:00 am (0400 GMT) at more than 6,000 voting centers staffed by 200,000 trained workers. They were scheduled to close at 5:00 pm (1400 GMT) but no results were expected to be announced on Saturday.
The Iraqi electoral commission said 52,000 official observers would oversee the vote, and since political parties were also authorized to attend, the total number could reach up to 116,000.