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Iraq election commission checking ballots
Updated: 2005-10-18 18:50

A sandstorm that muddied Baghdad's skies cleared, allowing officials to resume flying ballot boxes to the capital Tuesday so "unusually high" vote totals in 12 Shiite and Kurdish provinces can be checked by election officials.

Iraqi electoral workers carry ballot boxes before sending them to be counted in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Oct. 17 2005. Iraq's electoral commission said Monday it intended to audit an 'unusually high' vote count from most provinces in the country's landmark referendum on the draft constitution.[AP]
The investigation by Iraq's election commission has raised the possibility that the results of the referendum could be called into question. As many as 99 percent of the voters reportedly approved Iraq's draft constitution in some of the provinces being investigated.

Meanwhile, insurgents resumed attacks that had fallen sharply during Saturday's vote at heavily protected polling stations across the country.

In Baghdad, militants shot and killed an adviser to one of Iraq's top Sunni Arab officials as he drove to work on Tuesday, police said.

In fighting in western Iraq, two U.S. Marines and four militants were killed near the town of Rutba, not far from the Jordanian border, on Monday, the military said. At least 1,978 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Adil al-Lami, head of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that ballot boxes were arriving from the provinces and that employees had resumed counting.

"If we suspect that the numbers are higher or lower than we expected, we have to double-check them, and this audit means it might be several more days before we announce the final outcome," he said. "We are not concerned whether the outcome is `yes' or `no.' We are only interested in making the process technically a success."

He said the commission is "a neutral body" acting "as a referee."

The investigation by the commission in Iraq's landmark referendum has raised questions about irregularities in the balloting.

Word of the review came Monday as Sunni Arab leaders repeated accusations of fraud after initial reports from the provinces suggested the constitution had passed. Among the Sunni allegations are that police took ballot boxes from heavily "no" districts, and that some "yes" areas had more votes than registered voters.

The Electoral Commission made no mention of fraud, and an official with knowledge of the election process cautioned that it was too early to say whether the unusual numbers were incorrect or if they would affect the outcome. But questions about the numbers raised tensions over Saturday's referendum, which has already sharply divided Iraqis.

Most of the Shiite majority and the Kurds — the coalition that controls the government — support the charter, while most Sunni Arabs sharply opposed a document they fear will tear Iraq to pieces and leave them weak and out of power.

Irregularities in Shiite and Kurdish areas, expected to vote strongly "yes," may not affect the outcome. The main electoral battlegrounds were provinces with mixed populations, two of which went strongly "yes." There were conflicting reports whether those two provinces were among those with questionable figures.

At Baghdad's counting center, election workers cut open plastic bags of tally sheets sent by plane and helicopter from provincial stations. Nearby, more workers, dressed in white T-shirts and caps bearing the election commission's slogan, sat behind computer screens punching in the numbers.

Election officials in many provinces have released their initial counts, indicating that Sunni attempts to defeat the charter failed.

But the commission found that the number of "yes" votes in most provinces appeared "unusually high" and would be audited, with random samples taken from ballot boxes to test them.

The high numbers were seen among the nine Shiite provinces of the south and the three Kurdish ones in the north, al-Lami said. Those provinces reported to the AP "yes" votes above 90 percent, with some as high as 97 and 98 percent.

Two provinces that are crucial to the results — Ninevah and Diyala, which have mixed Sunni, Shiite and Kurd populations — were not among those that appeared unusual.

But the official with knowledge of the counting process said the unexpected results were not isolated to the Shiite and Kurdish provinces and were "all around the country." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the count.

Sunni opponents needed to win over either Diyala or Ninevah to veto the constitution. Sunnis had to get a two-thirds "no" vote in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces to defeat the charter, and they appeared to have gotten it in western Anbar and central Salahuddin, both heavily Sunni.

Ninevah and Diyala are each believed to have a slight Sunni Arab majority. But results reported by provincial electoral officials showed startlingly powerful "yes" votes of up to 70 percent in each.

Allegations of fraud in those areas could throw into question the final outcome.

But questions of whether the reported strong "yes" vote there is unusual are complicated by the fact that Iraq has not had a proper census in some 15 years, meaning the sectarian balance is not firmly known.

In Tuesday violence, insurgents shot and killed Ayed Abdul Ghani, an adviser to Osama al-Najafi, Iraq's industry minister and one of the country's top Sunni Arabs.

The shooting occurred in new Baghdad, an eastern section of the capital, as Ghani was driving to work at about 7:45 a.m., said police Maj. Falah Al-Mohammedawi.

Before Iraq's constitutional referendum, al-Najafi had predicted that voters would reject the document because it favors Kurds and majority Shiites over the Sunni minority.

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