Sunday, October 16, 2005

BAGHDAD — Early ballot returns yesterday indicated that Iraqis had approved a new constitution in a weekend referendum, with majorities voting in favor of the basic law in at least two of four Sunni-majority provinces.

Widespread participation in Saturday’s voting by Sunnis — who had largely boycotted the election of an interim government in January — was taken as evidence of a desire to reject insurgent violence and place their trust in the political process.

But although most parts of Iraq strongly supported the constitution, the insurgent stronghold city of Fallujah reported a 97 percent “no” vote, indicating the deep schism that remains in Iraqi society.

“The key here is the Sunnis have voted in large numbers. One way or another, the Iraqis will be in a position to move forward,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told NBC.

“You defeat an insurgency politically as well as militarily. It will take time, [but] an insurgency cannot ultimately survive without a political base,” she said.

Iraqis are less convinced that the new constitution and the scheduled election on Dec. 15 of a permanent government will quell the terrorist violence that has left thousands of Iraqis and Americans dead or injured in the past two years.

Security personnel and Iraqis say there might be a spike in attacks as security forces ease the cordon that was imposed across Iraq for Saturday’s vote.

A similar wave of violence hit the country after the successful January elections for a National Assembly.

Five U.S. soldiers were killed by a powerful roadside bomb yesterday in Ramadi, and several Iraqi soldiers died over the weekend as they tried to clamp down on the terrorists. Reuters news agency quoted residents as saying U.S. planes bombed parts of the city, killing 25 persons.

“I think the moderate Sunnis have decided to enter the political process,” said Hanaa Edward, who leads an Iraqi nongovernmental organization with representatives across the country.

“They lost a lot during this year, and they have decided to join the process, or else they will never realize their aspirations,” she said. But “it is not just in one day that everything will be changed.”

The weekend was eerily quiet because of a massive security clampdown. U.S. and Iraqi security forces closed off the borders, airports, major highways, roads and neighborhoods for the referendum.

By yesterday afternoon, as election officials began the long task of counting up the votes, traffic returned to the streets and the familiar crackle of gunfire echoed in the capital.

Carina Perelli, the international commissioner to the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, said preliminary results showed a strong turnout in the largely Shi’ite south, with 63 percent having voted in Basra.

The top Shi’ite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, had called on all Shi’ites to vote for the new constitution, which was drafted largely by the Shi’ites and Kurds. After a series of last-minute amendments that simplify future changes, some Sunni leaders urged their followers to participate.

Shi’ites and Kurds make up about 80 percent of Iraq’s population, but Sunni involvement is seen as crucial to getting the country away from insurgent violence.

Initial vote counts showed that a majority supported the constitution in two of the four provinces in which Sunni leaders had urged voters to reject the document, according to Associated Press reporters in those provinces. Opponents needed a two-thirds “no” vote in any three provinces to reject the charter.

Election officials in Diyala and Ninevah said most voters had supported the constitution, the AP said. Results in the provinces of Al Anbar and Salahuddin were too close to call.

Miss Perelli told reporters that many voting stations still were counting the ballots last night and sending the results into Baghdad via telephone and e-mail.

Electoral Commission chief Abdul-Hussein al-Hindawi told Reuters that the overall voter turnout was as high as 63 percent to 64 percent, even higher than in January.

But Miss Perelli said official results would not be known for several days and cautioned against estimated turnout reports.

If the constitution is approved, the country will return to the polls Dec. 15 to elect a new four-year parliament.

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