As the ballots in Iraq’s landmark referendum on a new constitution were dispatched Sunday to Baghdad for an official tally, disputes erupted over the likely result and the U.S. military reported the deaths of six troops on the day of what was otherwise a relatively peaceful vote.
In London, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters that early indications suggested that the constitution had “probably passed,” provoking a storm of outrage from Sunni Arab leaders who seized on her words as evidence that the result had been fixed.
“We think that this statement by Condoleezza Rice is astonishing because it is trying to mask the big rejection that this draft has faced all over Iraq,” said a statement by the National Dialogue Council, a Sunni group that was a leading campaigner for a “no” vote.
Election officials said the official count of the ballots won’t begin until Monday, and that an official result is still days away. “There is no result, and the figures you see reported in the media are wrong,” said Farid Ayar, spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission for Iraq.
The minority Sunni Arabs swarmed to the polls Saturday, mostly to vote against a constitution they believe does not represent their interests. Their boycott of January’s election left them with little representation in the National Assembly, which wrote the document.
President Bush hailed the participation of Sunnis in the referendum as “good news” for the future of democracy in Iraq. “This is a very positive day for Iraqi people and as well for world peace,” he told reporters in Washington.
But the disputes that are already emerging over the outcome of the poll underscore the deep sectarian tensions that underlie this second exercise in democracy since January. While most Sunnis are fiercely opposed to the constitution, Shiites and Kurds largely support it, and they account jointly for about 80 percent of the population.
Addressing reporters in Baghdad, Saleh Mutlaq, a leader of the National Dialogue Council, said he suspected Rice’s remarks were intended as a “signal” to Iraqi election officials to declare a favorable outcome of the voting, in which Iraqis voted “yes” or “no” on the question: Do you approve of the draft constitution?
“We would like to warn of the dangers of fixing these results and passing this constitution by force,” he said. “This would create a backlash that cannot be contained, including civil disobedience.”
U.S. officials are hoping that Sunni engagement in the political process will weaken support for the insurgency, thereby reducing the level of violence and enabling U.S. forces to start pulling out. But if the constitution is passed and Sunnis refuse to accept the result, there is a danger that they will turn their backs on politics and embrace the insurgency.
Shiite officials said their tallies suggested that the “yes” votes had prevailed.
Early returns indicated that the constitution was rejected by a big margin in two provinces where Sunnis dominate – Anbar and Salahuddin – but that it was passed by a “good majority” in all the other 16 provinces, said Saad Jawad, an official with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the leading Shiite party in the National Assembly.
“I am confident that it has been accepted,” he said.
For the constitution to fail, it would have to be rejected either by a simple majority of all voters or by a two-thirds majority in three provinces, but Sunnis account for more than two-thirds of the population in only two provinces, Anbar and Salahuddin.
Nonetheless, the National Dialogue Council issued what it claimed were figures showing that two-thirds of the voters had rejected the poll in five provinces, giving them the numbers they need to block the constitution. The provinces of Anbar, Ninevah, Diyala, Salahuddin and Kirkuk all rejected the constitution with more than 70 percent voting “no,” the Council said.
Although there is still no official count of the ballots, political parties are entitled to post monitors in polling stations and they dispatch their own tally of the results to their party leaders. Ballots are first counted at the polling stations, the results are recorded, and then the boxes are dispatched to Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone for an official tally, which will begin Monday.
It took three weeks for the election commission to tally the results of January’s election, and the final outcome turned out to be considerably different than some of the earlier estimates given by the political parties.
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who campaigned tirelessly to persuade Sunnis to accept the constitution, cautioned that it was too early to predict the result, but he said the apparently high turnout in Sunni areas meant that the political process was making progress.
“I think it’s too soon to tell whether the constitution will pass or not. Either way, there is a path forward,” he told ABC News’ “This Week.” “What it also indicates is that violence is not the way to deal with problems, that violence is a dead-end street.”
Little violence was reported during Saturday’s balloting, except in the troubled Sunni province of Anbar. Turnout was high in the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, which is now firmly under U.S. control, but elsewhere in Anbar either the threat of violence or calls for a boycott by local leaders appeared to have kept voters away. More than 60 polling places did not open.
Fierce clashes were reported Sunday between U.S. Marines and insurgents in the troubled town of Ramadi, Anbar’s capital, where only 2,000 people voted, according to a report from Ramadi in the Marine Corps Times.
Five of the Americans killed on Saturday were in Ramadi, where their vehicle was hit a roadside bomb, the military said. Also in Anbar, a Marine died in a roadside bombing in Saqlawiyah.