BAGHDAD, Iraq, Oct. 15 - Millions of Iraqis streamed to the polls Saturday to vote on a new constitution, joined by what appeared to be strong turnouts of Sunni voters in some parts of the country.
But the Sunni turnout - high in some cities like Mosul, low in others like Ramadi - appeared to be insufficient to defeat the new charter, and Iraqi officials predicted that it would pass.
Turnout appeared to be highest in Shiite and Kurdish areas, although in many places, including Baghdad, it seemed not to approach the levels seen in January, when throngs of voters stood in long lines to cast their ballots for an interim government. Both Shiites and Kurds were expected to vote overwhelmingly in favor of the constitution.
The day unfolded relatively calmly, with only scattered attacks on polling sites and troops around the country. Most vehicular traffic was banned, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and American troops and police officers were out in force.
Iraqi elections officials said final voting results would probably not be ready until the middle of the week.
The proposed constitution gives the Iraqi state a strong Islamic cast and provides broad guarantees for individual rights. It grants the Kurds broad autonomy in northern Iraq, and is expected to usher in a Shiite-dominated government after elections in December.
Both prospects - Kurdish autonomy and Shiite ascendancy - are viscerally opposed by many Sunnis. The Sunnis, believed to comprise no more than 20 percent of Iraq's population, enjoyed a privileged status in Iraq from its birth in 1920 until the fall of Saddam Hussein's government in 2003. The charter will fail if two-thirds of the voters in any three Iraqi provinces reject it.
The mood on the streets of many Iraqi cities, even in Shiite areas, appeared markedly less enthusiastic than on Jan. 30, when millions of Iraqis braved an onslaught of violence to cast ballots and celebrate in a vast outpouring of pro-democratic sentiment.
On Saturday in Baghdad, streets were noticeably bare of pedestrians, polling centers were less busy, and voters exhibited little enthusiasm.
"I sense that the turnout will be lower this time," said Zainab Kudir, the chief poll worker at the Marjayoun Primary School in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad. "People feel their needs have not been met. There is no security. There are no jobs."
But as in the January elections that brought Iraqis the first fully elected government in the country's history, many who arrived at the polling centers paused to catch the sense of history on a day when they were given, with a vote on the new constitution, a voice in shaping the kind of country Iraq will become.
Some drew comparisons with the last time Iraqis were asked to vote in a referendum, Oct. 15, 2002, exactly three years ago, when Mr. Hussein, under pressure from the United States before the invasion that came five months later, awarded himself a new seven-year term in a ballot in which he was the only candidate. The next day, his aides announced he had won 100 percent of the 11.4 million votes.
"Before, there was no constitution, there was only Saddam," said Minascan Watanyan, an 82-year-old man who turned out to vote Saturday in Baghdad and who said his son was tortured to death under Mr. Hussein's government.
In Iraq's predominantly Shiite areas, many voters were drawn to the polls by an endorsement of the constitution from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the powerful Shiite religious leader.
The constitution, and the elections set for December, are seen by Shiites across the country as the keys to enshrining their dominance after decades of living as a repressed majority.
"Sistani's endorsement helped, but the decision was mine; it came from inside me," said Hassan Muhammad, a 37-year-old laborer in Baghdad whose two brothers were executed during the Hussein years. "The best thing about this constitution is that it allows federalism, and that will prevent a concentration of power at the center, another dictatorship."
In Baghdad's Sunni neighborhoods, those who did cast ballots said overwhelmingly that they would vote against the constitution.
The Sunni voters who did so expressed little nostalgia for Mr. Hussein's government, but pointed instead to the violence and economic privations that have engulfed the country.
"I have no power, I have had no water for three days, I live in the harshest conditions I have ever known," said Abdul Hamid Ghaffouri, a Sunni clothing salesman, who voted. "Can you tell me any reason I should vote yes?"
In Washington, a White House spokesman said: "The president is pleased to hear that Iraqis turned out in large numbers to freely express their views on this historic day. It appears that the level of violence was well below the last election. Today's vote deals a severe blow to the ambitions of the terrorists and sends a clear message to the world that the people of Iraq will decide the future of their country through peaceful elections, not violent insurgency."
The exact extent of turnout was unclear. Based on scattered reports around the country, voting in Sunni areas appeared higher than in January but somewhat lower in Shiite and Kurdish areas.
Few polling centers in Baghdad had the long lines of voters seen in January. In Erbil, in the north, Kurdish officials reported lower turnouts. In Karbala, a holy Shiite city, turnout at some precincts appeared to hover around 50 percent, which, if true for the province as a whole, would be down from January.
More Sunnis appeared to have cast ballots Saturday than did in January, when Sunnis largely boycotted the voting. Steady streams of voters were seen in the Sunni-dominated cities of Falluja and Mosul and in Sunni areas of Diyala Province.
But some Sunni cities reported virtually no turnout whatsoever. Many of the Sunnis who did cast ballots said they voted against the charter, which many Sunnis fear will enshrine Shiite rule for years to come and which they fear could help spur the ultimate breakup of the country.
In Ramadi, the embattled capital of Anbar Province, polling stations stood largely empty. "Maku, maku!" shouted poll workers at one site, using the Arabic word for nothing. They pointed to a large auditorium, where plastic ballot boxes stood empty on the floor in front of a stage.
There was higher Sunni turnout in Mosul, which has been a stronghold of the insurgency; Falluja, where American troops have maintained a heavy presence; and Baquba, a mixed Sunni-Shiite city northeast of Baghdad where the insurgency has been less virulent.
In Mosul, people lined up outside polling centers in the Arab section of the city and said that they felt much more secure than they did in January.
Hopes that the Sunnis would turn out in greater numbers than in January rose this week, after Iraqi leaders struck a deal with Iraq's largest Sunni political party. But most other Sunni groups, including influential clerics, refused to sign on, sticking to their insistence that no accommodation was possible until American forces set a timetable for a withdrawal.
The guerrilla insurgency is strongest in Sunni areas like Anbar Province, and one of the primary goals of the voting has been to marginalize the insurgency by drawing Sunnis into the political process.
Iraqi and American officials were hoping that greater Sunni participation would push overall turnout past the 58 percent mark reached in the January elections.
In Erbil, officials speculated that the turnout appeared lower because voters there had grown complacent that the constitution would pass.
There were pockets where turnout appeared quite heavy. At one precinct in Sadr City, the giant slum area where as many as half of Baghdad's five million people live, 1,750 of the 2,400 registered voters cast ballots by late afternoon, a turnout of 73 percent.
At Al Afak Elementary School in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Mufrek in Baquba, more than 1,000 people voted in the first four hours. By late morning, the lines were backed up into the school's inner courtyard.
Voting centers were also set up in the American-run prisons at Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca for some 13,000 detainees, many of them suspected insurgents. There was even a polling station at Camp Cropper, where Mr. Hussein is incarcerated. There was no word on whether he had cast a ballot.
In the days leading up to the vote, Iraqi and American officials said their principal fear was that a wave of violence in Kurdish and Shiite areas could drive down the "yes" votes enough to defeat the constitution.
But the violence was held mostly in check. About a half-dozen polling centers came under attack; one of them was in the predominately Sunni town of Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, where insurgents attacked a polling center and stole a ballot box. That raised fears that the insurgents could single out the Iraqis who had voted.
Of 6,100 polling stations across the country, about 128 did not open, mostly for security reasons. A roadside bomb struck an Iraqi Army patrol in Saadiya, north of Baghdad, killing three soldiers.
On Jan. 30, when more than eight million Iraqis went to the polls to choose the Shiite-led transitional government that led the drafting of the constitution, American military commanders reported nearly 350 insurgent attacks, including numerous suicide bombings, the highest level of violence for any day of the war. On that occasion, American troops were highly visible on Baghdad's streets.
On Saturday, the 150,000-member American force was much less evident, with perimeter security at the polling centers left mostly to the fast-growing Iraqi security forces.
In many areas, the only sign of the American military occupation came from low-flying Apache attack helicopters circling over known areas of insurgent strength, and occasional patrols by armored Humvees, with turret gunners scanning the streets.
Maj. Muhammad Faris Ali, a military intelligence officer responsible for a wide area of northwestern Baghdad, attributed the relative calm to the Iraqi army's takeover of duties that were still assigned to Americans in January. "We are Iraqis, and we know our people," he said. "The Americans have a good army, but they don't know Iraqis as we know them, and that makes for much better security."
Some Iraqis drew contrasts with the election three years ago to the day for Mr. Hussein. "I voted then, for Saddam, of course, because I was afraid," said Jabar Ahmed Ismail, 75, living on a $100-a-month pension from a lifetime as an oil pipeline repairman. "But this time, I came here by my own choice. I am not afraid anymore. I am a free man."
A Sunni, Mr. Ismail said he had voted for the constitution, despite appeals by many Sunni leaders for it to be rejected, and threats from Islamic militants to kill anybody participating in it. He said he did not really know what was in the constitution, but the fact that his opinion had been sought was enough for him to back it. "It gives me hope in God, and in my fellow men," he said. As for the insurgents, he said, they were "infidels," and added, "I don't accept them."
"I don't know what they want."
TV Coverage Outside Iraq
By The New York Times
CAIRO, Oct. 15 - While Muslims across the Arab world focused on family and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, most local news channels devoted only modest attention to Iraq. But the two premier regional satellite news channels, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, focused on the vote, with Al Jazeera noting that while the day seemed to go well with "a continuous influx of Iraqis to the polling stations," the future was uncertain.
"Will this help unite the country or will it hasten the division of Iraq into different ethnicities?" said a broadcaster on Al Jazeera.
Both satellite channels reported concern that the new constitution, and the new Iraq, would have less of an Arab identity.
and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Najaf and Karbala.