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Iraq constitution expected to pass despite Sunni efforts

Move to block charter unlikely, polls suggest

BAGHDAD -- US and Iraqi officials said yesterday that Iraq's new constitution looked likely to pass as election workers tallied ballots from a referendum that brought disaffected Sunni Arabs charging back into the political arena.

Sunnis who boycotted Iraq's parliamentary elections 10 months ago turned out to vote this time, mostly in an effort to block the charter, which many Sunnis believe would lead to the breakup of Iraq by allowing the creation of strong federal states under a weak central government.

But yesterday, projections suggested that opponents of the constitution would be unlikely to muster the two-thirds of votes in three of Iraq's 18 provinces that would be required to veto the charter. Official results are not expected for several days.

Partial results released by local election officials indicated that a ''no" vote of at least two-thirds was likely in two Sunni-majority provinces -- Salahuddin, which includes Samarra, and Anbar, which includes Ramadi and Fallujah.

But in the other two provinces where large Sunni populations live alongside sizeable Kurdish and Shi'ite groups, a majority appeared to support the charter. In Nineveh Province, where a large concentration of Sunnis live in and around Mosul, election officials told the Associated Press that among the votes counted so far, about 300,000 people supported the constitution and 80,000 opposed it. In Diyala Province, about 70 percent voted yes according to partial results, election officials said. Turnout in those provinces was reportedly high, as Kurds in Mosul and Shi'ites in Diyala flocked to the polls to contest Sunni opposition.

The passage of a constitution is crucial for US policy in Iraq, since it will pave the way for the election of a legislature that will sit for four years, an important milestone for a country that has seen three governments since the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein 2 1/2 years ago.

The charter includes strong guarantees of personal and religious freedoms, but has divided Iraqis along religious and ethnic lines over issues like the role of Islam, which is defined as ''a basic source" of legislation, and the distribution of natural resources. Kurds and Shi'ites backed the charter's blueprint for creating powerful regional governments, but Sunnis fear that could leave them isolated in their central region with few natural resources.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters traveling with her that the constitution ''probably" passed, although the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, backed away from that in an interview with CNN, saying it was ''too soon to tell."

The top United Nations electoral adviser in Iraq, Carina Perelli, cautioned that the estimates were based on ''impressionistic" data from poll samples that might not be representative.

The Sunni no vote was strong enough to prompt US officials to stress that strong opposition -- or even a rejection of the draft constitution -- would not constitute failure of the political process.

''That would be like saying in the United States if you put something up for a referendum and people don't vote for it, that's a setback for democracy. No, that is democracy," Rice told The Washington Post.

Khalilzad said the greatest success of the referendum is the increase in Sunni participation, even if it was largely a protest vote.

''It shows that their voice matters, that the political process provides avenues for affecting the situation," he said, adding that if the constitution is rejected, ''that would show that the voice of those people who said no through political participation did matter."

US officials have long argued that bringing Sunnis and other disaffected Iraqis into the political process would defuse the insurgency.

President George W. Bush yesterday praised the referendum as a step in that direction.

''This is a very positive day for the Iraqis and as well for world peace," he said.

The referendum went off with less violence than expected, with no reports of voters being killed in violence. But yesterday, the US military announced it had not gone unscathed: Five US Marines were killed during the referendum in Ramadi, when a roadside bomb detonated under their vehicle, bringing the US death toll in Iraq to at least 1,975, according to an Associated Press tally. Nine Iraqi soldiers also were killed on Saturday, six in incidents unrelated to the balloting.

And Sunni disaffection could well remain after the vote if Iraq moves forward with a charter passed over their objection.

Saleh Mutlak, whose Dialogue Council has tried to speak for disaffected Sunnis, challenged the vote's legitimacy, suggesting Rice's comments were a hint to election workers to forge the results.

''This will create unbearable reactions, including civil disobedience," he said.

It was still unclear how many Sunnis and how many Iraqis voted.

Perelli said an overall turnout figure of 66 percent, cited by Rice, was ''unwarranted" speculation. Perelli cited unaudited turnout figures for eight provinces in the Shi'ite south, where support for the constitution was expected to be strongest, that ranged from 54 to 63 percent. Turnout was 58 percent in Iraq's parliamentary elections in January.

Hussein al-Hendawi, chief of the Electoral Commission, told Reuters that 63 to 64 percent of the 15.5 million registered voters had cast ballots.

Yesterday, Iraqi officials set Dec.15 as the date for new legislative elections. If the constitution passes, Iraqis elect a new legislature that will sit for four years. If it fails, the vote in December will be for a new temporary assembly that would redraft the constitution from scratch.

Globe correspondent Sa'ad al-Izzi contributed to this story.

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