Iraq to audit 'unusually high' referendum results

Thomas Wagner
Monday, October 17, 2005

BAGHDAD -- Election workers will audit results showing unexpected ratios of "yes" to "no" votes from some parts of Iraq in the country's landmark referendum on the draft constitution, officials said Monday.

The U.S. military said, meanwhile, that its warplanes and helicopters bombed two western villages Sunday, killing an estimated 70 militants near a site where five American soldiers died in a roadside blast. Residents said at least 39 of the dead were civilians.

Word of the unexpected results came as Sunni Arab legislator Meshaan al-Jubouri claimed fraud had occurred in Saturday's election, including instances of voting in hotly contested regions by pro-constitution Shiites from other areas. His comments echoed those made by other Sunni officials over the weekend.

Iraq's Electoral Commission said numbers from most provinces "were unusually high according to the international standards" and so would "require us to recheck, compare and audit them."

The commission said it would take random samples from some ballot boxes to check the results.

An official with knowledge of the election process said that in some areas the ratio of "yes" to "no" votes seemed far higher or lower than would be expected. The official cautioned that it was too early to say whether the figures were incorrect or what caused the unusual results.

The commission and the official did not say what regions had the curious returns.

Voting was believed to have been highly polarized between Sunni Arabs, who largely oppose the charter, and Shiites and Kurds, who supported it. The main electoral battlegrounds were provinces with mixed populations, two of which went strongly "yes."

The province of Diyala, for example, is believed to have a slight Sunni Arab majority. But reports from electoral officials there on Sunday reported a 70 per cent "yes" vote and a 20 per cent "no."

However, Iraq has not had a census for more than 15 years, so judgments of the exact sectarian balance are difficult.

U.S. President George W. Bush said Monday that he was pleased that Sunni Arabs cast so many ballots.

Asked whether the Sunni vote would damage the political process or increase the likelihood of violence, Bush said the increased turnout was an indication that Iraqis want to settle disputes peacefully.

"I was pleased to see that the Sunnis have participated in the process," Bush said from the Oval Office. "The idea of deciding to go into a ballot box is a positive development."

Further delaying the count and the posting of final results, a sandstorm swept over Baghdad on Monday, grounding air travel. Vote tallies still have to be flown in from the provinces, and workers at the central counting centre were still examining results only from the capital and its outskirts.

Figures reported by elections officials in the provinces to The Associated Press indicated the constitution appeared to have passed, with the Sunni Arab attempt to veto it falling short.

The acceptance of the constitution would be a major step in setting up a democratic government that could lead to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned Sunday that violence will continue, even if the constitution is adopted. She said support for the insurgency would eventually wane as the country moves toward democracy.

On Saturday, a roadside bomb killed five U.S. soldiers in a vehicle in the Al-Bu Ubaid village on the eastern outskirts of the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi. On Sunday, a group of about two dozen Iraqis gathered around the wreckage; they were hit by U.S. air strikes, the military and witnesses said.

The military said the crowd was setting another roadside bomb when F-15 warplanes hit them, killing about 20 people it described as "terrorists."

But several residents and one local leader said they were civilians gathering to gawk at and take pieces of the wreckage, as often occurs after an American vehicle is hit. U.S. troops had closed off the area Saturday, so Sunday morning was the first chance for people to go near it.

Tribal leader Chiad Saad said the air strike killed 25 civilians. Several others said the same, although they refused to give their names for fear for their safety.

The other deaths occurred in the nearby village of Al-Bu Faraj.

The military said gunmen opened fire on a Cobra attack helicopter that spotted their position. The Cobra returned fire, killing about 10. The men ran into a nearby house, where gunmen were seen unloading weapons before an F/A-18 warplane bombed the building, killing 40 insurgents, the military said.

Witnesses said at least 14 of the dead were civilians. After a man was wounded in an air strike, he was brought into a nearby building that was struck by warplanes, said the witnesses, who refused to give their names out of fear for their safety.

An Iraqi journalist reporting for AP said he later saw the 14 bodies and the damaged building.

Associated Press Television News video showed the dead included two children and one woman. Witnesses said seven other children were among the dead. APTN also showed two children among the wounded.

Few voted in Ramadi, 112 kilometres west of Baghdad, on Saturday, either out of fear of militants' reprisals or out of opposition to the charter.

A U.S. marine was also killed by a bomb Saturday in Saqlawiyah, 65 kilometres west of Baghdad, the military said. Since the war began in 2003, at least 1,976 U.S. service members have died, according to an AP count.

On Monday, a drive-by shooting killed two policemen in Kirkuk, 290 kilometres north of Baghdad, and a suicide bomber attacked a funeral for a sheik in Samarra, about 100 kilometres north of Baghdad, killing two civilians and wounding one, police said.

The violence raised to 535 the number of people who have died in insurgent attacks across Iraq in the last three weeks.

© The Canadian Press 2005