Hundreds of Iraqi police and army troops fanned out across Baghdad on Thursday, setting up checkpoints and fortifying polling stations with barbed wire and blast barriers two days ahead of a historic constitutional referendum.
From the city's Shiite stronghold of Kazimiyah to its southern approaches in the notorious "Triangle of Death," the capital's usually chaotic traffic was down to a tiny fraction. Many stores didn't bother to open and others shuttered early ahead of a 10 p.m. curfew.
By nightfall, Baghdad streets were almost emptied of civilians. The large army and police presence, combined with the scarcity of people and vehicles, gave the city a disquieting calm.
Similar security precautions were in place across much of Iraq in anticipation of a spike in attacks by insurgents who want to derail the political process. Nearly 450 people have been killed in violence over the past 18 days.
In related developments:
Thousands of Iraqi prisoners have been allowed to vote two days early on the country's new constitution. Officials have been allowing prisoners who haven't been tried yet to vote. Some shouted to camera operators, "Yes, yes to the constitution!" Election officials say they're not sure if Saddam Hussein is among the prisoners who voted.
One day after Iraqi lawmakers approved a set of last-minute amendments to the constitution without a vote, sealing a compromise designed to win minority Sunni Arab support for the charter, cities such as Baghdad were unusually quiet on Thursday as a four-day national holiday began, closing government offices and schools ahead of Saturday's vote. A 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew also was being imposed Thursday, and the following day the country's borders will be closed and all travel among its provinces stopped.
Iraqis watching state-owned Al-Iraqiya television on Wednesday night, saw the National Assembly approve a set of last-minute amendments to the constitution without a vote, sealing a compromise designed to win Sunni support and to boost chances for the charter's approval in Saturday's referendum. At least one major Sunni Arab party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, said it will now support the draft at the polls. But some other Sunni parties rejected the amendments and said they would still campaign for a "no" vote.
The coalition preparing to form Norway's next government said Thursday it plans to withdraw Norwegian troops from Iraq and from U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan. The Nordic country has 20 soldiers in Iraq — 10 serving in staff-officer positions within the British and Polish contingents, and 10 involved in training Iraqi forces.
A car bomb hit an Iraqi police patrol in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing two policemen and wounding two other, police said on Thursday. The attack came as US and Iraqi forces stepped up security and prepared to impose an overnight curfew in an effort to reduce insurgent attacks aimed at causing chaos during this weekend's constitutional referendum.
In the past three weeks, more than 440 people have been killed in Iraq as the insurgents try to frighten voters away from the polls on Saturday. Most of the fatalities have been caused by suicide car bombs, roadside bombs and drive-by shootings.
Even with no people on the streets, sharp divisions over the referendum were visible in Baghdad.
Hundreds of posters and banners urging a "yes" vote were plastered on virtually every wall and shop window in the Shiite district of Kazimiyah. Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has ordered his followers to approve the constitution.