U.S. sees Iraq charter passed as veto risk recedes


By Alastair Macdonald and Mariam Karouny
Sun Oct 16, 2005 1:53 PM BST

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqis look to have voted "Yes" to their U.S.-brokered constitution, as poll workers counted and recounted piles of ballots across Iraq on Sunday and the possibility of a Sunni minority veto receded.

"Most people assume on the ground that it probably has passed," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters during a visit to London, hailing the turnout in Sunni Arab areas which had largely boycotted a vote in January to the parliament that wrote the constitution.

Heavy security had brought an unusual lull across the country during the vote but the U.S. military said that five of its soldiers had been killed on Saturday by a bomb attack on their vehicle in the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, where little voting took place because of the clashes.

Overall, turnout was running at 63 to 64 percent and could go higher, Electoral Commission head Hussein Hendawi told Reuters. It was 58 percent in January's historic first post-Saddam Hussein election, which most Sunni Arabs shunned.

Hendawi said he had no word on the result but local officials from his agency began to give a picture of a strong "Yes" vote in the Shi'ite Muslim provinces of the south and of massive rejection in the Sunni heartlands of the north and west.

Even if a majority of Iraqis backed the constitution it could be vetoed if two-thirds of voters in three of Iraq's provinces reject it. But partial returns suggested "No" voters reached this target in only two of Iraq's 18 provinces.

In schools and government buildings around the country, officials were counting, re-counting and stacking piles of "Yes" and "No" ballots; clear plastic ballot boxes, sealed with red tape, were then loaded into Iraqi army lorries and driven under escort for more counting in Baghdad.

Three Iraqi soldiers were killed late on Saturday when a roadside bomb hit one such convoy. Three rockets landed in the capital's fortified Green Zone government compound, where officials are doing the final count, but caused no major damage.

Shi'ites and their Kurdish allies make up three quarters of Iraq's population, but because of the veto clause it was still possible for Sunni Arabs to block the constitution if they mustered enough "No" votes in three provinces.

Two provinces look set to clear that hurdle, including Saddam's home region of Salahaddin around Tikrit and Samarra, where an election official reported a "No" vote of 70 percent.

In Falluja, where thousands of insurgents battled U.S. troops a year ago, some 90 percent of registered voters turned out, local election chief Saadullah al-Rawi told Reuters, and 99 percent of them voted "No" to a constitution that Sunni leaders say may tear Iraq into powerful Shi'ite and Kurdish regions.

Overall figures from other cities in Anbar province, where Falluja lies, were not available but turnout was expected to be low due to fighting and fear of fighting during Saturday's vote.

With Anbar and Salahaddin looking likely to return blocking "No" results, eyes were on Mosul, northern capital of Nineveh province and a city divided sharply between Sunni Arabs and Kurds, as well as on mixed Diyala province, east of Baghdad.

However, partial counts indicated there was little chance of a big rejection in Nineveh, a senior government source said.

With the count in from most polling stations, votes in favour were leading by a big margin. Even a solid "No" from remaining areas, most of which were predominantly Arab, would not turn it around, the source said. Kurdish leaders have denied Arab accusations of packing Mosul with Kurdish voters.

Diyala, with a Sunni population of about 40 percent, seemed unlikely to return a "No" vote big enough to block the charter.

South of the capital, despite some surprisingly strong rejection by nationalist followers of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, pro-constitution votes were clearly ascendant.

In the provinces of Najaf and Kerbala, local officials said the constitution was approved by about 85 percent.

Elaborate security measures prevented big insurgent attacks on voting day, with only scattered strikes reported across Iraq after months of bloodshed in which thousands have been killed.

Election officials said partial official results from the vote could be available as early as Sunday, but that it would take several days for the verdict to become totally clear.

If the constitution passes Iraq will go to the polls again in December to elect a new, four-year parliament in a step that Washington says will mark its full emergence as a sovereign democracy and new Western ally.

A "No" vote would force the country's feuding factions back to the drawing board, limiting December's election to a new interim assembly and government to redraft the charter.

Despite the uncertainty, Saturday's referendum won praise from the United Nations and the Bush administration.

The White House praised the large turnout and the relative calm compared to the January election of an interim parliament when more than 40 people were killed in more than 100 insurgent attacks, including suicide bombings.

"It appears that the level of violence was well below the last election," White House spokesman Allen Abney said.

"Today's vote deals a severe blow to the ambitions of the terrorists and sends a clear message to the world that the people of Iraq will decide the future of their country through peaceful elections, not violent insurgencies," he added.

(Additional reporting by Ibon Villelabeitia in Mosul and Saul Hudson in London)

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