BAGHDAD, Iraq – Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein (search) was not among the Iraqi detainees who cast ballots Thursday on the proposed Iraqi constitution, as U.S. and Iraqi forces stepped up security across the country to impede insurgent attacks aimed at derailing Saturday's referendum.
Non-convicted detainees, including Saddam, whose trial is set to begin Oct. 19, were allowed to cast votes Thursday but the former leader was not among those voting, Judge Nadham Farhan (search) of the Iraqi Special Tribunal told FOX News. The reason for his abstaining was not immediately known.
The rest of Iraq was scheduled to vote on Saturday, just days after Iraqi lawmakers approved a set of last-minute amendments to the constitution designed to win Sunni Arab support for the charter.
On Thursday, Iraqi cities were unusually quiet as a four-day national holiday began.
Government offices and schools were closed ahead of Saturday's vote, and a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew went into effect Thursday. On Friday the country's borders will be closed and all travel among its provinces halted.
Working under cover of darkness, U.S. and Iraqi forces erected concrete barriers topped with concertina wire in front of polling places, to protect them from insurgent bombs.
President Bush (search) addressed U.S. forces in Iraq, where they will provide security at 1,250 polling sites.
In a teleconference call Thursday morning with soldiers from the Army's 42nd Infantry Division, based in Tikrit, hometown Saddam, Bush said the mission in Iraq is to replace a “backward, dark philosophy with one that’s hopeful,” one that “attracts Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds.”
He added: “The American people are proud of you.”
There are 156,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, a total that has been rising in recent weeks as the 101st Airborne returns, along with lead elements of the 3rd Corps Support Command.
In the last 18 days, at least 438 people have been killed by militant violence as the insurgents try to scare voters away from the polls Saturday. Most of the fatalities have been caused by car bombs, roadside bombs and drive-by shootings. The bodies of other Iraqis who had been kidnapped have been found in isolated areas.
"Our soldiers recognize that they are not here to influence the election, but they are here to allow the Iraqi people the opportunity to vote," said U.S. Lt. Col. Jeff Edge, as his battalion delivered barriers to a volatile, mostly Sunni Arab area of southwest Baghdad.
During the first three days this week, Iraqi and U.S. forces in Baghdad, backed by Black Hawk helicopters, reported capturing 75 suspected insurgents, seizing three large weapons caches and rescuing an Iraqi man who had been kidnapped by insurgents.
On Wednesday, for the second day in a row, a suicide attacker hit the northwestern town of Tal Afar, killing at least 30 people and wounding 35. On Tuesday a bomber killed 30 civilians when he plowed his explosives-packed vehicle into a crowded outdoor market in Tal Afar. Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for that attack.
Also Wednesday, the military announced that two U.S. soldiers died and one was injured when their vehicle rolled over while on patrol during combat near Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad. The crash brought to 1,962 the number of members of the U.S. military who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
On Thursday, a U.S. soldier in Task Force Liberty was killed when a combat patrol struck an IED near Ad Dujayl.
Iraqis watching state-owned Al-Iraqiya television on Wednesday night saw legislators in 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 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.
Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, also weighed in, ordering Shiites to vote "yes" in the referendum, one of his aides, Faisal Thbub, said. It was the most direct show of support for the charter by al-Sistani, whose call brought out huge numbers of voters to back Shiite parties in January elections.
The most significant change is the introduction of a mechanism allowing Sunni Arabs to try to make more substantive changes in the constitution later, after a new parliament is elected in December.
Sunnis want to weaken the considerable autonomous powers the Shiite and Kurdish mini-states would have under the constitution. But there's no guarantee they will succeed: They will still likely face strong opposition from majority Shiites and Kurds in the new parliament.
The amendments also made some key symbolic concessions to Sunni Arabs, starting with the first article underlining that Iraq will be a single nation with its unity guaranteed — a nod to fears among the disaffected minority that the draft as it stood would divide the country.
That was not enough, however, for many Sunni leaders.
"The added articles do not change anything and provide no guarantees," Muthana Harith al-Dhari, spokesman of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, told Al-Jazeera television.
The association urged the Iraqi Islamic Party to withdraw its support for a constitution that would "fragment Iraq and destroy its identity." In a statement, the association urged Sunnis to vote "no."
"We have called for boycotting the elections or rejecting the constitution," al-Dhari said.
Still, the changes could split the Sunni vote enough to prevent them from defeating the draft constitution. The draft will be rejected if more than two thirds of the voters oppose it in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces, and Sunnis have the potential to do so in just four.
The charter's passage is a key goal of the United States, since failure would mean more months of political instability and would delay U.S. plans to start pulling troops out of Iraq.
Sunni Vice President Ghazi al-Yawer said the amendments meant Sunnis had to work harder in the December parliamentary elections to ensure a strong presence in the next parliament to try for future, deeper changes in the constitution.
Another significant amendment assures Sunni Arabs that they will not be purged in Iraq's de-Baathification program simply for belonging to Saddam's ousted Baath Party. Many current Sunni Arab political leaders were Baath members and insist only those who actually committed crimes should be prosecuted.
There are just 17 Sunni members in the current 275-member parliament after largely boycotting Jan. 30 elections.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.