Iraq counting ballots

Monday, October 17, 2005

Iraq's election commission announced Monday that officials were investigating "unusually high" numbers of "yes" votes in about a dozen provinces during Iraq's landmark referendum on a new constitution, raising questions about irregularities in the balloting. 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 have an effect on the outcome.

The Bush administration has touted last weekend's referendum in Iraq as progress but analysts said on Monday the new constitution was too ambiguous and that violence still overshadowed Iraq's political future. Partial results from Saturday's referendum indicated a victory for the constitution the United States hopes will help stabilize Iraq and ultimately lead to 156,000 U.S. troops coming home.

The historic Iraqi vote on the proposed draft constitution ended on Saturday, and ballots are now being tallied. Initial reports show the draft constitution will be supported. Security during voting day was tightened, although the U.S. military has announced that five American soldiers and a marine were killed by a bomb blast on the day of the referendum, bringing the U.S. death toll in Iraq to 1,971.

Early returns showed the vote was split as was expected along largely communal lines. Opponents failed to secure the necessary two-thirds "no" vote in any three of Iraqi's 18 provinces, according to counts that local officials provided to The Associated Press. In the crucial central provinces with mixed ethnic and religious populations, enough Shiites and Kurds voted to block the Sunni attempt to reject the constitution. Local election officials gave a picture of a strong "Yes" vote in the Shiite Muslim provinces of the south, and of a substantial "No" vote in the Sunni Arab heartlands of the north and west.

Rejection of the draft constitution appears to be impossible according to initial vote counts reported in the three key provinces that Sunni Arab opponents relied on to defeat the draft constitution. Opponents need a two-thirds "no" vote in three of those provinces. They may have reached the threshold in Anbar and Salahuddin, but Diyala and Ninevah provinces appeared to have gone strongly "Yes".

According to the Arab News, it is probable that the Iraqis have agreed to the new constitution. It is believed that its passing is almost certain because the majority, both Shiite and Kurds, supported it. The Sunnis, on the other hand, have looked at the constitution as a "death sentence." They fear that the document, drafted as it was by a Kurdish-Shiite-dominated Parliament, will ultimately divide Iraq into three separate districts: a powerful ministate of Kurds in the north, the majority Shiites in the south, both capitalizing on Iraq’s oil wealth, and the Sunnis, according to this scenario, would be left impoverished and isolated somewhere in the middle.

President Bush referred to the vote as a victory for opponents of terrorism. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking in London as the vote-count in Iraq was in progress, said the draft constitution had probably passed. Rice said later the final result was still not known. An unofficial tally is expected on Thursday and a final announcement on Oct. 24, senior electoral official Farid Ayyar stated on Sunday. It is expected that the official count will take several days.

Electoral officials estimated that as many as 10 million of Iraq's eligible 15.5 million voters cast ballots, which would yield a turnout of around 63 to 64 percent. In the January election which approved their interim government, 58 percent of voters turned out.

President Bush said in his weekly radio address Saturday that the weekend election is a critical step forward in the quest for democracy in Iraq. For the draft constitution to be approved after the months of negotiations by lawmakers in Iraq's transitional National Assembly, a majority of voters must support it. With what is believed to be strong support in Shiite and Kurdish communities, who together account for more than three-quarters of the population, the 50% threshold is expected to be met.

A rejection of the draft constitution would be viewed by coalition members as serious blow to the political evolution in Iraq that followed the U.S. led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. The transitional assembly would be dissolved, and the process of writing a new constitution would have to start all over after a new assembly could be elected in December. Regardless of the outcome, Iraq will hold parliamentary elections on December 15, the office of the President said on Sunday.

A new, permanent government, could possibly clear the way for the United States and its coalition allies to begin a withdrawal of troops from Iraq.