Iraq's war-battered voters apparently approved a new constitution in voting Saturday, preliminary and unofficial results showed Sunday, but disaffected Sunni Arabs proved unexpectedly formidable in their first venture into post-Saddam Hussein politics with a strong vote against the U.S.-backed charter.
Province-by-province tallies Sunday showed the constitution winning approval in Saturday's voting with the unified backing of Iraq's Shiite Muslims and Kurds, who together are about 80 percent of the country's population. Sunni Arabs, who account for about 20 percent of Iraq's people, apparently did not muster enough votes to defeat the proposed charter, which required rejection by two-thirds of voters in at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces.
According to electoral officials in four crucial battleground provinces where Sunni Arabs had the popular strength to potentially defeat the constitution, voters rejected it in two provinces -- Salahuddin, with an 81 percent "no" vote, and solidly Sunni Anbar, where an even larger no total was expected. The Sunnis missed their goal in the other two -- Diyala and Nineveh -- despite spirited contests, electoral officials said.
Authorities gave differing numbers for total turnout but agreed it topped 60 percent.
Political violence on Sunday remained below the level of recent months. The U.S. military, however, announced that five Marines were killed by a roadside bomb in the western insurgent stronghold of Ramadi on Saturday, when Iraqi insurgent groups had largely halted attacks so Sunnis could cast ballots.
Hospital officials in Ramadi asserted that 25 people were killed when U.S. warplanes retaliated for a roadside bombing on Sunday. The planes attacked as bystanders gathered around a U.S. Humvee as it smoldered on the side of the road, said Khalid Alwani, an official at Ramadi hospital.
As early tallies from the constitutional referendum emerged Sunday, some Sunni leaders cried foul, saying their field surveys showed that they had in fact crossed the threshold for defeating the proposal. They charged that the U.S.-backed government, a coalition of Shiite and Kurdish parties whose leaders dominated the drafting of the constitution, was stealing the election.
"I believe they will rig the results and announce the success of the referendum, but our monitors reported to us that more than 80 percent of the voters in three governorates have said no to this draft," Saleh Mutlaq, a spokesman for the Sunnis' National Dialogue Council, told reporters at a news conference; Iraq's provinces are formally called governorates. "This constitution is a menace to the unity and stability of Iraq, and we shall have no legal or legitimate means in order to defeat it."
Saadoun Zubaidi, an independent Sunni member of parliament who worked on drafting the constitution, said independent monitors had concluded that Sunnis voted no in the referendum in at least three and possibly four provinces, "but if you want to fiddle with it, that's a different matter." If the results need to be contested, he said, "we'll do it through the channels."
Adil Lami of Iraq's electoral commission said the commission had received no formal complaints of fraud, adding that "launching accusations in advance" was a tactic typically used by people who felt results were not going their way. "The whole process was successful, and the electoral commission succeeded in holding an honest and transparent referendum," he said.
U.S. officials and their allies, including Iraqi government officials, had hoped the larger-than-expected Sunni turnout heralded their return to mainstream politics in Iraq and disavowal of the two-year-plus insurgency. Sunni Arabs, who ruled here for decades and wielded extraordinary authority under Hussein, lost power after U.S.-led forces toppled Hussein 21/2 years ago. They largely boycotted legislative elections in January, and Sunni extremists have been the backbone of the insurgency that has brought Iraq close to civil war. Almost 2,000 U.S. soldiers have died here since the 2003 invasion.
In Washington, President Bush praised Iraqis for successfully holding the referendum. "This is a very positive day for the Iraqi people and, as well, for world peace," he said. "Democracies are peaceful countries."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters traveling with her in London that initial assessments indicated Iraqis had probably approved the constitution, although she said the turnout alone proved the fragile new political process had taken hold.
"The general assessment is it will probably pass," Rice said. "I think that the assessment of the people on the ground, who are trying to do the numbers and trying to look at where the votes are coming from, is there's a belief that it can probably pass. But again, we'll see."
Many diplomats and analysts say they believe the constitution, which would formalize Iraq as a parliamentary democracy with Islam as a principal source of its laws, would bring a measure of peace and stability to the country and undercut the insurgency by demonstrating to Sunnis that they could better achieve their goals through politics than violence. U.S. officials have called adoption of the constitution a vital step toward restoring order and eventually withdrawing the roughly 150,000 U.S. troops stationed here.
Many Sunni Arabs opposed the constitution because it provides a mechanism for establishing regional states with broad autonomy. The charter recognizes the existing Kurdish region in the north and could allow creation of a Shiite state in the south, leading Sunni Arabs to warn of an eventual partitioning of Iraq that would relegate them to the impoverished center. But some prominent Sunnis backed the referendum last week after parliament agreed to last-minute changes that would allow the constitution to be amended by the next parliament, which will be elected in December.
"The important thing is that this referendum was a turning point, where people moved toward using the political process," said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish member of parliament who helped draft the constitution. Sunnis, he said, "will participate in the next elections, because they see that through the political process, they can gain a lot, which we hope will turn them away from the insurgency and isolate the terrorists."
But it was unclear whether Sunnis would stay engaged in the political process if they thought it was stacked against them or perceived that they lost the referendum by fraud.
"As an individual and liberal professor and member of parliament, I say we will remain part of the political process, and we shouldn't resort to violence or any other means," said Zubaidi, the Sunni lawmaker. But Iraq "suffers from political illiteracy, where debates are done more though fists and bullets than the word. Of course I'm worried."
Months of negotiations to win broad support from Iraq's three main communities largely failed, as demonstrated by the Sunnis' overwhelming rejection of the charter. In a sign of how deep and hard divisions ran, the no vote was as high as 90 percent in some Sunni communities, while some Shiites approved the charter by a similar figure, local officials said.
Although precise numbers were not released, electoral officials said that Anbar province had voted overwhelmingly against the constitution, a result that was expected and which no one disputed. In Salahuddin, according to election official Salaf Khalid Farag, 81 percent of the voters opposed the charter.
The constitution won approval in the two other toughly contested provinces, officials said. In Nineveh province, 76.6 percent of voters approved the constitution and 21.5 percent rejected it, electoral commission spokesman Abdul Ghani Ali Yehya said. In Diyala, about 55 percent of the 727,000 voters approved the constitution, according to an electoral commission official, Mahir Darwish.
Staff writer Robin Wright in London and special correspondents Omar Fekeiki in Baghdad and Dlovan Brwari in Mosul contributed to this report.