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U.S. Reports Calm In Sunni Areas, For Now

Iraqi policemen transport ballot boxes of a constitutional referendum to a vote counting centre at a polling station in the Sunni-dominated town of Fallujah, west of baghdad 15 October 2005. Iraqi election officials started to count 16 October 2005 mounds of ballots from an historic referendum on their new constitution, following a strong turnout hailed by world leaders as a milestone for the country. AFP photo by Mohammed Khodor.

Washington (UPI) Oct 17, 2005
An insurgent response to Saturday's successful referendum is likely to come in several weeks, U.S. Army commanders in Iraq said Monday.

"They took about a month or so after the January elections to pick-up the pace of attacks. This time they may start a little earlier since the December elections are coming up quickly," said one Army battalion commander who spoke to United Press International from Baqubah Monday.

He expressed optimism that the violence will be kept in check -- rather than catapulting Diyala province into chaos -- by three things.

"The difference this time is that, 1) we've set conditions well by catching several key enemy leaders and disrupting several cells, 2) the Iraqi Security Forces are much better now, and 3) the Sunnis around here are participating in the process rather than disrupting it, for the most part," he said.

Across Iraq there was roughly 61 percent turnout overall, and much higher turnout than in January's election among the Sunni Arabs. Sunni opposition to the constitution is not believed to have been strong enough to cause the rejection of the document. At least three of Iraq's 18 provinces would have to muster a two-thirds "no" vote to prevent the acceptance of the constitution.

U.S. forces remain on the offensive against Iraq's insurgent strongholds, notably in violent Anbar province where air strikes and ground operations killed at least 70 in Ramadi, the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force announced Monday. The expeditionary force said the dead were insurgents, but local reports said dozens were civilians.

The offensive is part of an effort to keep the insurgency scrambling before the December election.

If that election is successful, it is likely significant numbers of American troops will begin to be withdrawn in the spring, according to U.S military and congressional officials. Therefore, the U.S. military is stepping up its offensive campaign now in the places hardest bit by the insurgency.

In northwestern Ninevah province -- home to Tall'Afar, a town that remains the focus of counterinsurgent military operations -- election day was calm and, in some places, even festive.

"In Tall'Afar we had a strong turnout. (There was) no violence in the (area of operations), a couple of reports of intimidation but people ignored them. It really was amazing. Still don't know if it was yes or no vote (and it) doesn't matter," said a 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment senior officer. "We have reports of people (Sunnis and Shi'ites) in Tall 'Afar seeing each other in line that they haven't been able to see because of the violence and intimidation and having joyful mini reunions.

"We hope this is a turning point and the country will now focus on who to elect in December," he said. "We know though that we aren't done fighting and the insurgents won't give up easily."

Baqubah was similarly peaceful on election day, said the battalion commander.

Voter turn-out was about 65 percent, a huge increase from January in the mostly Sunni city.

"Violence was way down compared to January too. In January, we had 65 attacks in the (brigade combat teams). This time we only had 19, and that includes several (roadside bombs) that were found and disarmed. No serious attack on a polling site and no voters injured or killed. The Iraqi Army and police did a good job, and of course our soldiers worked their ass off. All in all, we're very pleased with the whole operation," he said.

In the Sunni neighborhood that abuts the airport road in Baghdad, there were a small number of security incidents.

"We are tracking about 16 total incidents in the (area), with about 70 percent of those being ineffective drive-bys. We had four active polling sites in our AO and not one incident except for some angry people who went to the wrong site," said a battalion operations officer. "The day came and left without the bang everyone was anticipating."

However, only 3,600 people turned out to vote at the four polling sites.

For security reasons, polling sites were not announced in advance. The total ban on driving meant those that had to go long ways to the polling sites may not have voted. In some urban places like Baqubah a limited number of buses were made available to take voters to the polls. But in rural areas turnout may have been lower, according to U.S. Army officials.

The officer recently hired a Sunni Arab as his interpreter, and said the man and his entire family all voted "no" on the constitution.

"There is no doubt (he) is happy Saddam is gone, but his view of Iraq is a lot different than (his former interpreter, a Shi'ite). He actually believes the three groups in the country can live together without issue, but admits it will be hard because people have vivid memories of what the Sunnis were able to and did under Saddam," he told UPI.

"I don't want to sound too 'Pollyannish' but it really was a good day and we will take the win," said the 3d ACR officer.

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Washington (UPI) Oct 17, 2005
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