Election officials in Iraq say as many as 65 percent of eligible voters may have turned out to vote in Saturday's referendum on the country's draft constitution. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu visited polling sites throughout Baghdad and reports, despite insurgent threats to disrupt the referendum, the day turned out to be one of the most peaceful in months.
The officials say at least eight of Iraq's 18 provinces had a turnout of more than 66 percent and seven posted a moderate turnout of more than 33 percent.
The officials say the expected overall turnout rate would surpass the 58 percent recorded during January's elections, when an overwhelming number of Shi'ite Muslims and Kurds defied insurgent violence and went to the polls to elect a new interim government.
Iraq's Sunni Arab community largely boycotted January elections and, as a result, had little representation in the current interim government, and limited input in the committee that drafted the constitution.
Preliminary figures show that, this time, a large number of Sunni Arabs joined Shi'ites and Kurds in participating in the referendum. But unlike most Shi'ites and Kurds, the majority of Sunnis say they voted "no" for a constitution they say has the potential to start a civil war.
A Sunni voter in Ghazaliyah, who did not want to be identified, says he could not support a divisive constitution, which he says gave oil wealth to Shi'ites and Kurds and left nothing for the Sunni people.
In the so called "Sunni Triangle" area south of Baghdad, hundreds of Sunni residents streamed out of polling centers, proudly holding up their right index finger, stained with purple ink, to show that they had voted.
Hiyam Abid Mohammed Ali, who volunteered to work at a polling site in the insurgent town of Mahmudiyah, says people lined up to vote long before the polls opened at seven o'clock Saturday morning.
Ms. Ali says concerns about violence marring the referendum did not keep the people in the area from wanting to participate. But she says the lack of violence Saturday really boosted peoples' confidence to come out and vote.
For most of the day, the only sound that could be heard around Baghdad was that of U.S. military helicopters flying overhead and American troops in Humvee vehicles rattling down streets in patrols.
A strict ban on cars emptied streets and highways, turning them into playgrounds for children to ride bicycles and to play soccer.
At polling sites, Iraqi soldiers and police watched from nearby rooftops and entrances, as voters arrived on foot and were carefully body-searched at least three times before being allowed inside.
The deputy commander of Iraqi Armed Forces, Lieutenant General Nasier Abadi, tells VOA that he believes weeks of military operations against insurgents and foreign fighters in Baghdad and in western Anbar province has severely disrupted their ability to launch attacks. "They are out of steam. They have nothing to hit us with now," he said.
Election results are not expected for another five days. A simple majority is needed to approve the constitution. A two-thirds "no" vote in three provinces will defeat it.
If the constitution is approved, that will pave the way for elections in December for a permanent government. If it fails, parliament will have to be dissolved and a new interim assembly will have to be elected in December to draw up another constitution.