Iraqi charter seems headed for passage despite Sunni turnout

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s landmark constitution seemed assured of passage after initial results Sunday showed that a strong push by Sunni Arabs to veto fell short. Adoption would cross a major hurdle in the attempt to establish a democratic government and could pave the way to an eventual pullout of US troops.

But it could also divide the nation. Large numbers of Sunnis voted “No,” and some of their leaders were already rejecting the apparent result.

While a strong Sunni turnout suggested a desire among some to participate in Iraq’s new political system, there were fears that anger over at being ruled under a charter they oppose could push some into supporting the Sunni-led insurgency.

In a sign of the relentless danger, five US soldiers were killed on the day of Saturday’s referendum by a bomb in Ramadi, a hotbed of militants west of Baghdad, the military announced. It was the deadliest attack on US troops since a September 29 bomb blast in the same town also killed five soldiers.

The most recent deaths brought to at least 1,975 the number of US service members who have died since the war began in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

US President George W. Bush congratulated Iraqis on the referendum — which in most of the country saw few attacks and no deaths of voters in violence — and said the new constitution was a victory for opponents of terrorism.

“The vote today in Iraq is in stark contrast to the attitude, the philosophy and strategy of Al Qaeda, their terrorist friends and killers,” Bush said.

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

In the next step in Iraq’s political process, President Jalal Talabani issued a decree setting December 15 for Iraqis to go to the polls again, this time to elect a new parliament. If the constitution indeed passed, the first full-term parliament since Saddam’s fall in 2003 will install a new government by December 31. If the constitution has failed, the parliament will be temporary, tasked with drawing up a new draft to vote on.

After Saturday’s referendum, the last ballot boxes were being brought from polling stations to counting centres in the provincial capitals, many of them by US military helicopters, Humvees or armoured vehicles. Those centres were making initial counts, then were to truck the ballots to Baghdad for the final tallying, which was likely to begin on Monday and to last into Tuesday.

In Baghdad’s main counting centre, workers tallies votes from the region around the capital. The centre was shaken Sunday morning when militants fired two mortars into the Green Zone — the heavily guarded district where the US embassy, Iraqi government offices and the counting site are located. But the mortars did not hit the centre and caused no casualties or significant damage.

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

The US ambassador to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, told CNN’s “Late Edition” it was “too soon to tell,” but Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said: “My guess is, yes, it will be passed.” From counts provided by local officials to the Associated Press, passage seemed sure, with Sunni Arab opponents failing to secure the necessary two-thirds “No” vote in any three of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

Provinces in the south, where most of Iraq’s Shiite majority are concentrated, racked up big “yes” numbers — over 90 per cent in favour in most places. That with results from Kurdish regions in the north should easily build a majority in favour. Results were not yet available from Kurdistan, but the community strongly supports the charter.

Still, despite a call by their top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to support the charter, Shiite participation in the south was far lower turnout than parliament elections in January, when huge numbers of Shiite voters — more than 80 per cent — celebrated as they went to the polls to mark their new dominance of the country.

Between 54 and 58 per cent of voters showed up Saturday in most parts of the south, according to UN elections chief Carina Perelli. The drop could reflect a belief that the constitution’s victory was a sure thing or a vein of discontent among Shiites with their leaders in the government.

“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 who passed on voting. “The constitution will not change that. The main issue is not getting this constitution passed, but how to stop terrorism.” But in the crucial central provinces where it counted, enough Shiites and Kurds voted to stymie the Sunni bid to veto the charter.

The Sunni “no” campaign appeared to have made the two-thirds threshhold in Anbar province, the vast western Sunni heartland, and Salahuddin, the home province of Saddam Hussein where Sunnis hold a large majority and where as many as 90 per cent of voters cast ballots.

But two other provinces where Sunnis have only a slim majority, balanced out by large Shiite and Kurdish communities — Ninevah and Diyala — the “yes” vote won out.

Sunni Arab leaders responded angrily, some of them saying they suspected fraud and pointed the finger at American officials and the Shiite parties that dominate the government.

“There is no doubt that America has interfered in the process, since they and the Shiite government are supervising the whole operation, and since both want this draft to pass,” Sheikh Abdul-Salam Kubaisi, a prominent cleric with the influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, said.

“If the constitution was passed, the attacks will definitely raise against the occupation forces, and the security situation is going to be worse,” said Kubaisi, whose organisation is accused by government officials of links to the insurgency.

Though US officials played an intense role in mediating negotiations over the draft constitution, they had no role in the counting process, run by an Iraqi elections commission.

Still, many Sunnis repeated the same accusations and many expressed helplessness in their new status as the weaker party in a nation they once dominated under Saddam.

“Whatever happens or will happen in politics has nothing to do with the will of the people. It comes from the political elite who run Iraq along with the Americans out of the Green Zone in Baghdad,” Zuhair Qassam Khashab — a mathematics professor in Mosul and a “no” voter — said.

Sunni Arabs, who controlled the country under Saddam, 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.

They turned out in force in some areas Saturday, a stark contrast to January’s elections, which they boycotted because they believed the political process was giving unfair power to the Shiite majority. That move cost them politically, leaving them with a minuscule presence in parliament.

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