Shias in the south hail a historic day

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Many said they were voting "yes" because Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual head of the Shias, wanted them to. Some said the constitution was the way forward for all Iraq, while others spoke of overturning decades of domination by the Sunni minority.

Karim Mohammed Abbas, 34, a Shia chemist, said of the Sunnis: "They have ruled us without our consent for a very long time, and now they will have to learn to live with a democratic vote. People here just want an equal share of the resources." His friend Ibrahim Hameed added: "The Shias are trying to build this country, many of the Sunnis are bombing it."

Killings since the war have driven many Sunnis from the south. Even at Zubayr, south of Basra, where Sunni voters make up 25 per cent of the electorate, most were afraid to identify themselves.

"I am voting 'no' because the constitution will be bad for the country. I have read it and it is divisive," said Hanan Abdulkarim, 37. "Why should I say whether I am Sunni or Shia? I am an Iraqi Muslim." Nor did she want to say anything about the trial of Saddam Hussein. "It is not something I have thought about."

Walid Khalid Alwan, the area voting co-ordinator and a lawyer, shouted: "How can you say that? Saddam should be killed." After Ms Abdulkarim left, there were mutterings among some of those at Al-Najat polling station. "We know her," said one man. "Her husband is a Baathist, he has now fled. She is safe as a woman, but Baathists who worked for Saddam must be punished."

Jalil Farq Jamal, 74, had suffered at the hands of Saddam's regime. "I was imprisoned for no reason, and they beat me badly," he said. "I am glad the US and British troops got rid of him. But they should go home in the next one or two years. This is the first chance we have to form our own government. I must be one of the oldest here."

The youngest was four-month-old Fatima Haidar, who was with her mother, Abtisam Abdullah, 20. "I brought her here because it is a historic day," said Mrs Abdullah. "I am voting 'yes' because ... if there is a political solution, maybe the violence will begin to lessen."

Security was largely provided by the Iraqi army and police, with the British military staying in barracks. This raised concerns, especially in Basra, where sections of the police are heavily infiltrated by Shia militias. A day earlier, Ahmed Kardham, a policeman, acknowledged he was a supporter of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. But what happens when that brings him into conflict with his duty to the state? "There is none," he said. "Moqtada is Iraq and Iraq is Moqtada."