At Large

The Referendum Shutdown

Iraq is observing a four-day weekend in order to secure a safe vote on its promising Constitution.

By 10.13.05

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BAGHDAD -- In the words of the average Iraqi on the street, Baghdad is getting ready for a "four-day holiday weekend." When I ask one of our employees if he or she will be at work tomorrow, the answer is "No, we have a holiday." It is never, "No, we are having a referendum on the constitution, and the country will be closed down for security reasons." Tomorrow is seen as just another holiday in a country that has an endless list of them.

"Holiday weekend" or not, Iraq is getting prepared for what could be a very exciting four days. Officially, Iraqis are being asked to approve or reject the draft of the Constitution they have labored over these past eight months. The debate has been full of bitter disagreements among Shiite, Kurd, and Sunni. It has resulted in thousands of deaths at the hands of terrorists who have a major stake in defeating this potentially landmark document in the country's history.

Just overnight there have been urgent news bulletins about "breakthroughs" in frantic negotiations that continued long after the time when the agreed on document had already been printed. Tuesday night's agreements came too late to be included, even as a "tip in," in the five million Constitution booklets being distributed in stores, newsstands, and every other conceivable place in the city. The process of distributing the booklets didn't get started until Monday.

The new agreements are also too late to be included in the pretty slick two-sided "Voting Instructions" hand-out printed on Tuesday. It too is being distributed on every street corner in Baghdad and throughout the rest of the country. It is quite an effective piece.

The "breakthrough" will actually make it more likely that the referendum will pass, since it provides a mechanism for amending the Constitution after the new Parliament comes into being following the December 15 election. This is very good news and bodes well for passage of the document Iraqis will consider on Saturday.

I have long felt the Constitution will be narrowly approved. This latest breakthrough has raised the level of my conviction to such giddy heights that I have bet 25 cents (U.S.) with everyone in the office that the Constitution will lose in only one province -- Anbar. The conventional wisdom is that it will lose in two provinces. Defeat of the entire document requires that it lose in at least three provinces. That God-awful prospect would require that the entire process carried out during the past year start all over again!

FASCINATING TO OBSERVE THE PAST few days is how the Iraqi Army has quickly started to turn the screws that will leave the entire country in lockdown by Friday. Because Friday is the Sabbath anyway, the Army in effect will have everything officially closed off by the middle of the day on Thursday. There will be no cars, no planes, no trains, no stores open, no nothing, as the referendum approaches.

Banning all traffic from the streets has the goal of removing from the terrorists' hands the most popular weapon of choice in the arsenal of the suicide bomber -- the car bomb. Individuals outfitted with strap-on bombs will still be a major concern, but even these will be addressed by means of rules calling for people to refrain from wearing clothes that would conceal strap-on explosive vests.

The past weeks, while filled with violence, have not achieved quite the level of mayhem that had been predicted. Very tough enforcement of checkpoint discipline has worked wonders in enabling soldiers and police to force people out of their cars to be searched, frisked and, if they engage in backtalk, roughed up. Probably hundreds have been rounded up as a result of this activity, which is capable of identifying those with make-shift explosive devices.

Fortunately for Iraqis, they are not cursed with the burden of a local ACLU that helps the terrorists by making it easier for citizens to be killed.

IN PREPARATION FOR THE ELECTION our company is planning a "dress rehearsal" for what we should do if, during the "four day holiday," our office compound comes under attack. Since we will be alone we have to know where to take cover, what weapon to have, and all the other "tactical information" required to conduct a defense of Marble House, as our headquarters is called.

An attack most likely will occur if terrorists decide, for their own reasons, to strike at the home-base of a major media company located next door to us. Such a move would get them the extensive media coverage they crave. An effective attack might also result in their having a major impact on any media company's willingness to have well-staffed outposts in Baghdad. If there is an attack, the private Kurdish guards who are paid to provide our defense might be overwhelmed. During the January elections, U.S. troops were positioned atop the media company and took up other positions that would give them clear fields of fire in the event our enclave were invaded. They obviously would have been able to handle a gang of marauding terrorists. I don't know if the U.S. Army has any plans to "flood the zone" in the Marble House neighborhood this time.

Privately, I have trouble containing my laughter during our daily "tactical briefings," which started three days ago. At age 73 I must confess that, while this is all very exciting, I am beyond the cowboys and Indians phase of my life. I also look at the guy conducting the briefing, an Uzi slung over his shoulder, talking in military jargon, and realize this is the same fellow who in the past seven months has twice accidentally fired his pistol inside our little SUV while it was speeding along with four people in it! Fortunately no one was hurt. As if to underscore his luck, in his oral "after action report" he said, "No harm, no foul."

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