Iraq ratifies constitution

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The move by the election commission paves way for elections.

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq's election commission declared Tuesday that final results from the Oct. 15 referendum show the new constitution was ratified by a huge margin, paving the way for elections. Sunni Arab leaders raised doubts that it would be embraced by those at the heart of the insurgency.

Nearly 79 percent of the 9.8 million voters nationwide supported the charter, the Independent Election Commission announced after a 10-day audit following allegations of fraud. Election official Farid Ayar said the audit turned up no significant fraud, despite allegations by Sunnis opposed to the charter.

Despite the strong "yes" vote nationwide, Sunni Arabs came close to scuttling the constitution because of a provision in the law stating that if two-thirds of the voters in any three of the 18 provinces rejected the charter it would be defeated.

Voters in two heavily Sunni Arab provinces overwhelmingly voted against the constitution -- by 96 percent in Anbar and about 81 percent in Salahuddin, which includes Saddam Hussein's hometown.

Voters in Nineveh province, which includes Iraq's third-largest city, also voted down the charter but by about 55 percent -- below the two-thirds threshold. In Diyala, a mixed province with a large Sunni Arab population, the constitution won by only about 51 percent.

The Bush administration hopes the constitution will help bring disaffected Sunni Arabs, the foundation of the insurgency, into the political process, enabling the United States and its coalition partners to begin bringing their troops home.

Approval of the constitution, followed by elections Dec. 15, would enable the administration to maintain it had achieved its goal of bringing constitutional, democratic government to Iraq after decades of Saddam's despotic rule.

"It's a landmark day in the history of Iraq," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "We congratulate the Iraqi people. ... The political process is continuing to move forward in Iraq, and it is an encouraging sign to see more and more people participating in the process."

Carina Perelli, the U.N. elections chief, praised a "very good job" with the audit of results by election officials and said "Iraq should be proud of the commission." Both the European Union and NATO also welcomed ratification.

The strong negative vote by Sunni Arabs, however, raised questions whether the charter would succeed in luring Sunnis away from the insurgency. Many Sunni Arabs fear the constitution will create virtually autonomous and oil-rich mini-states of Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south, leaving Sunnis isolated in poor central and western regions with a weak central government in Baghdad.

Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni Arab member of the committee that drafted the constitution, called the referendum "a farce" and accused the Shiite and Kurdish-dominated government of stealing ballot boxes to reduce the percentage of "no" votes in several provinces.

"The people were shocked to find out that their vote is worthless because of the major fraud that takes place in Iraq," he said on Al-Arabiya television.

Much will depend on whether Sunni Arabs vote in large numbers in the Dec. 15 elections.

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