Iraq delays results of voting on charter

Posted in Iraq | 18-Oct-05 | Author: Dexter Filkins| Source: International Herald Tribune

Iraqi election employees enter data of Saturday's constitutional referendum at the headquarters of the IECI (Independent Electoral Commission in Iraq) in Baghdad's Green Zone, October 16, 2005.
BAGHDAD Iraqi election officials said Monday that they were investigating what they described as "unusually high" vote totals in 12 Shiite and Kurdish provinces, where as many 99 percent of the voters were reported to have cast ballots in favor of Iraq's new constitution, raising the possibility that the results of the referendum Saturday could be called into question.

In a statement released Monday evening, the Independent Election Commission of Iraq said the results of the referendum would have to be delayed by "a few days," because the apparently high totals in favor of the constitution required that election workers "recheck, compare and audit" the results.

The statement made no mention of the possibility of fraud, but said the re-examination of the balloting was being done in order to comply with internationally accepted standards.

Election officials say that under such standards, voting must be re-examined any time a candidate or a ballot question receives more than 90 percent of the vote.

The passage of the draft charter would constitute a significant step toward restoring Iraq's full independence and pave the way for a new round of elections Dec. 15 for a permanent government.

Careful not to preempt the outcome of the referendum, President George W. Bush said Monday that he welcomed the strong Sunni turnout at the polls.

"My first reaction to the vote was that an increase in turnout was an indication that the Iraqi people are strongly in favor of settling disputes in a peaceful way," Bush said in joint remarks with the president of Bulgaria, Georgi Purvanov, in the Oval Office.

"Secondly, I was pleased to see that the Sunnis have participated in the process," Bush said.

Sunni Arabs, who lost control of Iraq after Saddam Hussein was ousted from power in the American-led invasion in 2003, make up just 20 percent of the country's population.

The Sunnis, who widely opposed the new constitution, fear the new charter will pave the way for a breakup of Iraq and deprive them of oil resources in the north and the south of the country.

The constitution will fail if two-thirds of voters in at least three provinces block it; Sunnis dominate 4 of Iraq's 18 provinces.

Members of the Iraqi election commission declined to speak about the announcement of the investigation.

But an official with knowledge of the ballot counting said that the 12 provinces where the "yes" votes exceeded 90 percent all had populations that were either majority Shiite or Kurdish. Leaders from those communities strongly endorsed the proposed constitution.

More than one of those provinces, the official said, reported that 99 percent of the ballots counted had been cast in favor of the constitution.

None of the provinces cited for a closer look had Sunni majorities.

"When you find consistently very, very high numbers, then that is cause for further checking," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the information. "Anything over 90 percent either way usually leads to further investigation."

Even if no evidence of fraud is found, the announcement Monday seems likely to trigger suspicions among many Iraqi voters, especially Sunnis, many of whom are deeply suspicious of the Shiite majority and of the Kurds.

The election commission, which is composed of six Iraqis and one non-Iraqi, has the authority to overturn the results of the election if the panel finds that it was conducted unlawfully.

The announcement that voters in some provinces voted in inordinately high numbers in favor of the constitution follows concerns, publicly expressed by Shiite leaders before the balloting, that the constitution could fail. To address those concerns, the Iraqi National Assembly passed a measure that would have modified the way that votes are counted to make it easier for the constitution to pass. The assembly rescinded the measures in the days leading up to the election.

American airstrikes kill 70

Sabrina Tavernise of The New York Times reported from Ramadi, Iraq:

American airstrikes killed about 70 suspected insurgents in a series of operations near the volatile western Iraqi city of Ramadi, U.S. military said Monday.

The strikes Sunday targeted Sunni-led insurgents, who tried to intimidate voters in the run-up to the balloting Saturday by killing scores of Iraqis with suicide attacks and roadside bombs in recent weeks. But within hours of the announcement Monday by the U.S. military, news agencies reported that dozens of the dead were civilians.

The military said in its statement that 20 men were killed east of Ramadi when a fighter jet fired a precision-guided bomb on a group of people suspected of placing a roadside bomb at the site of a bomb attack that killed five American and two Iraqi soldiers on referendum day.

An estimated 50 other Iraqis died in raids by helicopters and fighter jets dispatched to observe a suspected safe house in the Abu Faraj region north of Ramadi, where a group of men was loading vehicles with weapons, the statement said.