Sunnis Failed to Defeat Iraq Constitution

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 26, 2005

BAGHDAD, Oct. 25 -- Iraqi voters approved a new constitution in a referendum 10 days ago, according to final results announced by electoral officials Tuesday, delivering a blow to Sunni Arabs who came close to defeating the charter and who will now try to amend it after electing a new legislature in December.

Many Sunni Arabs had hoped to kill the constitution by rallying two-thirds of the voters in three of Iraq's 18 provinces to vote against it -- a veto provision designed to protect Iraq's minorities. They came close, winning solid majorities against the constitution in three provinces, but they fell short of the two-thirds threshold in the third.

The election results came as violence, including a new rash of car bombings, killed at least 18 people Tuesday -- six in Baghdad and 12 in Sulaymaniyah, a normally tranquil city about 170 miles north of Baghdad, in the Kurdish region.

Clean-up and repairs began at two downtown Baghdad hotels, the Sheraton and the Palestine, that were attacked in a coordinated strike involving three vehicle bombs on Monday. Soldiers replaced concrete blast walls outside the hotels, which house numerous foreign media bureaus and other foreign businesses. Al Qaeda in Iraq asserted responsibility for the bombings, which killed 17 people and wounded 10, the Associated Press reported.

The constitutional referendum was approved by 78 percent of voters, with 21 percent -- mostly Sunni Arabs -- rejecting it, according to tallies announced by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq. The results confirmed widely reported preliminary estimates showing that the referendum had passed.

In Anbar province, 96 percent voted against the referendum, and 81 percent rejected it in Salahuddin. But in the key swing province of Nineveh, 56 percent voted against the constitution -- about 10 percent short of the number necessary to kill it.

About 63 percent of Iraq's 15.5 million registered voters cast ballots, the commission reported.

The results underscored the deep divisions along ethnic and sectarian lines in Iraqi society -- a condition that has fueled a violent Sunni-led insurgency against the government and U.S. occupation forces.

Shiite Arabs, who account for about 60 percent of Iraq's population, overwhelmingly favored passage of the constitution, which formalizes the country as a parliamentary democracy with Islam as the source of its laws. Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of the population, also strongly embraced the charter, which grants far-reaching autonomy to their region in northern Iraq.

But leading figures among Sunni Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of the population, were split over the constitution. Many said they feared it could herald the partition of the country, with Kurds and Shiites building ministates in the oil-rich north and south and Sunnis relegated to the resource-poor center. Other Sunni leaders were won over by a last-minute change to the constitution that will allow it to be amended -- subject to another referendum -- by the next parliament, which is scheduled to be elected in December.

Western diplomats say they hope the Sunnis' strong turnout -- 88 percent of the registered voters cast ballots in the Sunni province of Salahuddin, for instance -- indicates their rejection of violence and support for a political process to bring change. And some Sunnis said Tuesday they were looking forward to improving their membership in parliament in the upcoming elections.

"We have urged our people to vote in favor of the constitution because we think it is the best way to achieve what we call for," said Naseer Ani, head of the Iraqi Islamic Party's political office. "Now we have the elections nearing, and we call for all to participate with us in the new political process if they want to change any of the mistakes and disputes included in the referendum."

Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki and Bassam Sebti in Baghdad and Sarok Abdullah in Sulaymaniyah contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company