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Iraqi charter seems headed for passage
Updated: 2005-10-16 21:04

Iraq's constitution seemed headed toward passage Sunday despite strong opposition from Sunni Arabs, who turned out in surprisingly high numbers in an effort to stop it. The apparent victory was muted, though, by the prospect that the result might divide the country further.

Rejection seemed more unlikely as vote-counting continued across the country. In one key result, Ninevah, one of three crucial northern and central provinces that Sunni Arab opponents pushed hard to swing their way, appeared to have voted "yes" by a considerable margin.

In London, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice predicted the charter was likely to pass, although she cautioned that she did not know the outcome for certain.

If two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces voted "no," the charter would be defeated. Sunni Arab opponents hoped to reach that threshold in four provinces: Anbar, Ninevah, Salahuddin and Diyala.

According to a vote count from 260 of Ninevah province's 300 polling stations, about 300,000 people voted for the constitution and 80,000 against, said Samira Mohammed, spokeswoman for the election commission in the provincial capital, Mosul, and Abdul-Ghani Boutani, a senior official in the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Ballots from the remaining 40 stations still had to be counted, but it would be very difficult to turn the vote around to a two-thirds "no" vote that Sunni opponents would need to defeat the charter.

The constitution is a crucial step in Iraq's transition to democracy after two decades of repressive rule by Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. Washington is hoping it passes so Iraqis can form a legitimate, representative government, tame the insurgency and enable 150,000 U.S. troops to begin withdrawing.

A nationwide majority "yes" vote is assured by the widespread support of the constitution among the Shiites — who make up 60 percent of the country's estimated 27 million people — and the Kurds — another 20 percent.

To defeat the constitution, Sunnis have to muster a two-thirds rejection in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces. They were likely to reach that threshold in the vast Sunni heartland of Anbar province in the west. Salahuddin province also looked possible, but with Ninevah out of the running, they would need to get the province of Diyala, which will also be difficult.

An elections official in Baghdad told The Associated Press that indications point to the charter having been approved. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the counting was still going on.

Sunnis turned out in force in Saturday's voting, a stark contrast to parliamentary elections in January, which they boycotted as a protest to a political process they felt was handing the country's Shiite majority unfair power. That move cost them, leaving them a minuscule presence in parliament.

The lines of Sunnis at the polls in the key electoral battleground states suggested they wanted to now participate in the political system.

Now the question is whether they will accept the passage of a constitution despite a significant "no" vote among the Sunni community. While moderates could take a more active role in politics, hard-liners could turn to the insurgency, deciding violence is the only hope of retaining influence in the country.

Speaking in London, Rice said "the general assessment that it has probably passed." She said her information came from "people on the ground who are trying to do the numbers, trying to look at where the votes are coming from and so forth."

Abdul-Hussein al-Hendawi, a top official in the elections commission, stressed there were no results yet from Saturday's vote. "We cannot make any prediction, but we hope by tonight we will have an idea about the result of the vote," he said.

Election workers in many provinces were still making their counts, which will be sent along with the ballot boxes full of votes marked on paper to the central counting center in Baghdad's Green Zone to reach the final, certified result. Vote counters in the Green Zone were already compiling votes from the capital and its surroundings.

Sunday morning, two mortars hit Baghdad's Green Zone, the heavily fortified district where U.S. and Iraqi government offices are located including the main center where all the votes from across the country are being counted and compiled. It was not clear if the mortars struck anywhere near the counting center. The blasts raised plumes of smoke from the zone but caused no injuries of significant damage, the U.S. Embassy said.

The attack came shortly after authorities lifted a driving ban imposed on Saturday to try to prevent suicide car bombs during voting. The ban was part of a nationwide security clampdown on Saturday, which turned out to be one of Iraq's most peaceful days in months.

Initial estimates of overall turnout Saturday were 61 percent, election officials said. But competition was more intense in the three most crucial Sunni-dominated provinces — Diyala, Ninevah, Salahuddin, where more than 66 percent of voters turned out.

Turnout by Shiites and Kurdish in regions outside the most contested provinces appeared lower than in January — despite calls by the top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for his followers to vote. Still, the nine provinces of the south, the heartland of the Shiites, and the three provinces of the Kurdish autonomous zone in the north were expected to roll in big "yes" numbers.

In Karbala, a Shiite province just south of Baghdad, some 440,000 people voted — a 60 percent turnout — and 95 percent of them cast "yes," ballots, according to the head of the election commission office in the province, Safaa al-Mousawi.

An official in the main Shiite political party in the ruling coalition, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said that the southern Shiite provinces of Najaf and Basra and Baghdad, which has a mixed population, together voted 90 percent "yes." But the official, Haitham al-Husseini did not break down the result in each province.

Most provinces in the south had only "moderate" turnout, between 33 and 66 percent, according to the elections commission. Qadissiyah province was even lower, with less than a third of voters going to the polls. In January, Shiites poured to the polls in huge numbers, well above 80 percent.

The lower participation this time may have been out of belief that success was a sure bet or because of some disillusionment with Iraq's Shiite leadership, which has been in power since April with little easing of Iraq's numerous infrastructure problems.

"My mother insisted to go because she considered that as a religious duty, but not me. She said she cannot disobey al-Sistani. Why should I care? Nothing has changed since we have elected this government, no security, no electricity, no water," said Saad Ibrahim, a Shiite resident of Baghdad's Karrada district.

"The constitution will not change that," he said. "The main issue is not getting this constitution passed, but how to stop terrorism ... Now they had this referendum done, we should expect terrorism back to our streets tomorrow."

Sunni Arabs, who controlled the country under Saddam Hussein, widely opposed the charter, fearing it will break the country into three sections: powerful Kurdish and Shiite mini-states in the oil-rich north and south, and a weak and impoverished Sunni zone in central and western Iraq.

But at the last minute, a major party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, came out in favor of it after amendments were made giving Sunnis the chance to try to make deeper changes later, which may have split Sunni voting.

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