Iraqi electoral commission to audit referendum results

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- 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.

Word of the review came as Sunni Arab leaders repeated accusations of voter fraud after initial reports from the provinces suggested the constitution had passed. Among their allegations were that police took ballot boxes from heavily "no" districts, that some "yes" areas had more votes than registered voters and that supporters of the charter were allowed to vote in crucial provinces where they do not live.

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 actually incorrect or whether they would have an effect on the outcome.

But questions about the numbers raised tensions over Saturday's referendum, which has already sharply divided Iraqis. Most of the Shiite majority and the Kurds -- the coalition which controls the government -- support the charter, while most Sunni Arabs sharply opposed a document they fear will tear Iraq to pieces and leave them weak and out of power.

The main electoral battlegrounds were provinces with mixed populations, two of which went strongly "yes." There were conflicting reports whether those two provinces were among those with questionable figures.

In new violence, the U.S. military said 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.

A sandstorm also became a factor in the vote count, preventing many tallies from being flown from the provinces to Baghdad, where they are to be compiled and checked. The electoral commission said it needed "a few more days" to produce final results, citing the need for the audit.

At Baghdad's counting center, elections workers cut open transparent and sealed plastic bags full of tally sheets sent from stations in the capital and its surroundings -- the only ones to have arrived so far. Nearby, more workers, dressed in white T-shirts and caps bearing the elections commission's slogan, sat behind computer screens punching in the numbers.

Election officials in many provinces have released their initial counts, indicating that Sunni attempts to defeat the charter failed and that it was adopted.

But the Electoral Commission said Monday that the number of "yes" votes in most provinces appeared "unusually high" and would be audited, with random samples taken from ballot boxes to test them.

The high numbers were seen among the nine Shiite provinces of the south and the three Kurdish ones in the north, Adil al-Lami, head of the commission, told The Associated Press.

Those provinces reported to AP "yes" votes above 90 percent, with some as high as 97 and 98 percent.

Al-Lami insisted the votes in two crucial provinces with mixed Sunni, Shiite and Kurd populations -- Ninevah and Diyala -- were not among those that appeared unusual, saying their results "were reasonable and balanced according to the nature of the population in those areas."

But the official with knowledge of the counting process said the unexpected results were not isolated to the Shiite and Kurdish provinces and were "all around the country." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the count.

The provinces of the Shiite and Kurdish heartlands in the north and south were expected to vote strongly in favor of the constitution, since most of them have only minimal Sunni Arab populations.

But Ninevah and Diyala were electoral battlegrounds, since Sunni opponents needed them to veto the constitution. Sunnis had to get a two-thirds "no" vote in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces to defeat the charter, and they appeared to have gotten it in western Anbar and central Salahuddin, both heavily Sunni.

Ninevah and Diyala were therefore key, but results reported by provincial electoral officials showed startlingly powerful "yes" votes of up to 70 percent in each.

Allegations of fraud in those areas could throw into question the final outcome. Questions of whether the strong reported "yes" votes there are complicated by the fact that Iraq has not had a proper census in some 15 years, meaning the sectarian balance is not firmly known.

A prominent Sunni Arab politician, Saleh al-Mutlaq, claimed both had seen fraud. He said he was told by the manager of a polling station in a Kurdish district of Diyala that 39,000 votes were cast although only 36,000 voters were registered there.

If the constitution indeed passed, the first full-term parliament since Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003 will install a new government by Dec. 31 following Dec. 15 elections. If the charter failed, the parliament will be temporary, tasked with drawing up a new draft constitution.

President Bush said 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. "The idea of deciding to go into a ballot box is a positive development."

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 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. airstrikes, 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 airstrike 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 airstrike, 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, 70 miles west of Baghdad, on Saturday -- either fearing militants' reprisals or out of opposition to the charter.

A U.S. Marine was also killed by a bomb Saturday in Saqlawiyah, 40 miles 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.

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