By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 16, 2005 2:12 PM
LONDON, Oct. 16 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday that initial assessments indicate Iraqis had probably approved a controversial constitution, although the turnout alone showed the fragile new political process has taken hold despite a deadly insurgency.
"There's a belief that it has probably passed," Rice told reporters traveling with her, based on accounts from people in Iraq who are seeing preliminary vote tallies. At least 63 percent of Iraqis voted Saturday, she said, an increase of about 1 million voters over the first democratic election in January for a transitional government. Much of that increase, she said, comes from the higher participation of Iraq's minority Sunni Muslims.
The violence also was lower and produced fewer lethal attacks than in January's vote, she noted.
Speaking in Washington Sunday afternoon, President Bush congratulated the Iraqis and noted that higher number of voters, especially among the Sunnis.
"This is a very positive day for the Iraqis and, as well, for world peace," Bush said in brief remarks to reporters. "Democracies are peaceful countries. The vote today in Iraq stands in stark contrast to the attitudes and philosophy and strategy of al Qaeda and its terrorist friends and killers."
The constitution requires a simple majority to be approved, unless two-thirds of voters in three of Iraq's 18 provinces voted against it. Then the constitution would not pass and Iraqi leaders would be forced to draft a new document to be submitted to voters.
News services from Baghdad reported Sunday that unofficial returns suggested large numbers of voters rejected the constitution in the Sunni strongholds of Anbar and Salahuddin provinces. But according to other unofficial results, Sunni voters may not have been able to reach the two-thirds threshold in Diyala province east of Baghdad or in Nineveh province in the north, where Sunnis also are a large percentage of the population.
The Associated Press reported that Samira Mohammed, a spokeswoman for the election commission in Ninevah's capital of Mosul, said a vote count from 260 of the province's 300 polling stations showed about 300,000 people supported the constitution and 80,000 opposed it.
The AP also reported that in Diyala, 70 percent of voters approved the constitution, while 20 percent opposed it and 10 percent of ballots were rejected as irregular, said Adil Abdel-Latif, the head of the province's election commission. The ballots were expected to be checked and recounted.
Rice's comments in London early today upset some Sunnis in Iraq, who accused her of sending signals to elections officials. "Condoleezza Rice made a statement," one Sunni leader, Saleh Mutlak told reporters in Baghdad, according to the Reuters news agency. "I believe it is a signal to the Electoral Commission to pass the constitution."
Rice later told reporters that she did not know for sure how the vote would come out, and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said on CNN Sunday that it was "too soon to tell" what the voting had determined.
Disputes over the constitution have been intense and threatened to deepen the religious and ethnic divide right up to the Saturday vote. But Rice said the turnout sends a strong signal to insurgents that the political process is "alive and well."
"What [the referendum] will certainly help to do is to broaden the base of the political process," she said, and diminish the influence of those supporting violence.
"Ultimately, insurgencies have to be defeated politically. You defeat them by sapping them of their political support, and increasingly Iraqis are throwing their support behind the political process, not behind the violence," she said on the last stop of her week-long tour of Central Asia, Afghanistan and Europe.
Rice denied that a rejection of the constitution would be a setback. "Iraqis had a process . . . that told them, 'write a constitution and then have a referendum,' " and they have done so, Rice said. "It's not a setback for the Iraqis if they exercise that right one way or another, it is a process that is alive and well."
Rice compared the outcome, either way, to the U.S. system of referendums. "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," she said.
Vast numbers of Sunnis, who largely boycotted the January vote, have shown they are now "very concentrated" on December elections for a permanent government, the final step of the three-stage political transition outlined by the United States after the ouster of president Saddam Hussein in 2003, Rice added.
Sunnis particularly have an incentive to participate because many of the decisions on the most-sensitive issues of establishing a government have been put off until the next national assembly, part of a package of last-minute compromises that were made to ensure that Sunnis feel they are not being marginalized by the powerful Kurds and the majority Shiite community, she said.
Rice warned, however, that the violence will continue and noted that even a few insurgents can launch violent attacks in an attempt to sabotage the transition.
"I have no doubt that the terrorists are going to continue to try to derail the political process, but they've failed every time they've tried to derail it," Rice told reporters.
America's top diplomat praised Iraqi police and security forces who deserved "a lot of credit" for the peaceful voting day. Iraqi forces played the leading role around the polls, with the U.S.-led coalition backing them up, she said. Their performance is key, since the training and deployment of Iraqi forces is the pivotal step in bringing home U.S. and other foreign troops deployed in Iraq since March 2003.
On the violence in Iraq, Rice disclosed that the United States has send a demarche to Iran expressing concern about its role on supplying or facilitating access to materiel for the roadside explosive devices that have proven so deadly to U.S. troops. "We have had limited contacts with Iran when necessary," she said, although she provided no specifics except to say contacts were made "sparingly."
Appearing on Fox News today, Rice also acknowledged that the impending trial of Saddam Hussein, due to start this week, is likely to inflame passions in Iraq. A large part of the insurgency is fueled by Sunnis who are Hussein loyalists. But she said many Sunnis also suffered during Hussein's long and brutal rule. The trial will "bring back a lot of bad memories," she said.
Appearing on both Fox News and NBC's Meet the Press from London, Rice again denied that she has any intentions of running for office in 2008. The questions were tied to a commercial urging her to seek the Republican nomination for president that is scheduled to run in Iowa, an important early primary state, during an upcoming airing of "Commander in Chief," the new hit television show about a female president. On Fox, Rice said she was "flattered" but, unless she goes to the National Football League, she will head back to Stanford University, where she was once provost. Rice has a passion for football.
Rice was in London Sunday to hold talks with Prime Minister Tony Blair and other British officials about Iraq, Iran and the Lebanon-Syria situation.