BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's constitution seemed assured of passage Sunday despite strong opposition from Sunni Arabs (search), who voted in surprisingly high numbers in an effort to stop it. The U.S. military announced that five American soldiers were killed by a bomb blast on referendum day.
In London, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) predicted the charter was likely to pass, although she stressed she did not know the outcome for certain.
Initial estimates of overall turnout Saturday were 61 percent, election officials said. The constitution's apparent victory was muted, though, by the prospect that the result might divide the country further.
Rejection appeared highly unlikely after initial vote counts showed that a majority supported the constitution in two of the four provinces Sunni Arab opponents were relying on to defeat it.
Opponents needed to get a two-thirds "no" vote in three of those provinces. They may have reached the threshold in Anbar and Salahuddin (search), but Diyala and Ninevah provinces appeared to have supported the document by a wide margin.
The latter three have Sunni majorities but also powerful Shiite and Kurdish communities, which made them focal points for the political battle.
In Diyala, 70 percent supported the referendum, 20 percent opposed it and 10 percent of ballots were rejected as irregular, said Adil Abdel-Latif, the head of the election commission in Diyala. The result came from a first count of the approximately 400,000 votes cast.
At least one more count was being conducted to confirm the votes, which would then be sent to Baghdad, where results from all provinces are being collected for final confirmation.
According to a vote count from 260 of Ninevah's 300 polling stations, about 300,000 people supported the constitution and 80,000 opposed it, said Samira Mohammed, spokeswoman for the election commission in the province's capital, Mosul.
Ballots from the remaining 40 stations still had to be counted, but it would be virtually impossible to get the two-thirds "no" that Sunni opponents would need.
A nationwide majority "yes" vote is assured by the widespread support of the Shiites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's estimated 27 million people, and the Kurds, who make up another 20 percent.
The constitution is a crucial step in Iraq's transition to democracy after two decades of rule by Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. Washington hopes it passes so Iraqis can form a legitimate, representative government, tame the insurgency and enable the 150,000 U.S. troops to begin withdrawing.
Rice said "there's a belief that it has probably passed." She said her information came from "people on the ground who are trying to do the numbers, trying to look at where the votes are coming from and so forth."
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said in a televised interview that it was "too soon to tell," but Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said, "My guess is, yes, it will be passed."
If the constitution is approved, Iraqis will choose a new parliament in Dec. 15 elections. Parliament then will select a new government, which must take office by Dec. 31.
If the charter is defeated, parliament will dissolve but the December elections will go ahead as planned. The new parliament then will draft another constitution and present it to voters in a second referendum.
Saturday's referendum saw few attacks on voters, and no voter deaths from violence. But the U.S. military reported Sunday that five American soldiers were killed on voting day by a roadside bomb during combat operations in the western town of Ramadi, a stronghold of Sunni insurgents. It was the deadliest attack against U.S. troops in Iraq since Sept. 29, when five soldiers were killed by a bomb, also in Ramadi.
The deaths during the referendum brought to at least 1,975 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the war began in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Few people turned out to vote in Ramadi, or other parts of Anbar province, the vast region that is the heartland of the Sunni Arab minority and the main battleground between Sunni insurgents and U.S.-Iraqi forces.
The exception was Fallujah, where thousands turned out. Opposition to the constitution is powerful there and likely would push results past the two-thirds threshold for a "no" vote in Anbar.
Sunni Arabs, who controlled the country under Saddam, widely opposed the charter, fearing it will break the country into three sections: powerful Kurdish and Shiite mini-states in the oil-rich north and south, and a weak and impoverished Sunni zone in central and western Iraq.
But at the last minute, a major party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, came out in favor of it after amendments were made giving Sunnis the chance to try to make deeper changes later, which may have split Sunni voting.
Some Sunni Arab leaders of the "no" campaign decried the reported results and insisted their figures showed the constitution's defeat, though they did not cite exact numbers. Some accused the United States of interfering in the results.
"We are warning of acts of fraud. This might lead to civil disobedience if there is fraud," said Saleh al-Mutlaq, head of the National Dialogue Council "We consider that Rice's statement is pressure on the Independent Election Commission to pass the draft."
Sunnis turned out in force Saturday, a stark contrast to January's parliamentary elections, which they boycotted because they believed the political process was giving unfair power to the Shiite majority. That move cost them politically, leaving them with a minuscule presence in parliament.
Now the question is whether Sunnis will accept the passage of a constitution despite a significant "no" vote from their community. While moderates could take a more active role in politics, hard-liners could turn to the insurgency, deciding that violence is the only hope for retaining influence.
Abdul-Hussein al-Hendawi, a top official in the elections commission, stressed there were no results yet from Saturday's vote.
"We cannot make any prediction, but we hope by tonight we will have an idea about the result of the vote," he said.
Some ballot boxes were still making their way to counting centers in the provinces. Provincial election workers were adding up the paper ballots, which will be sent to the counting center in Baghdad's Green Zone for another check to reach the final, certified result.
Vote counters in the heavily fortified district, where U.S. and Iraqi government offices are located, already were totaling votes from the capital and its surroundings. But election officials said the central compilation of the provinces' ballots may not start until Monday.
Sunday morning, two mortars hit the zone, but it was not known if they struck anywhere near the counting center. The blasts raised plumes of smoke from the zone but caused no injuries or significant damage, the U.S. Embassy said.
The attack came shortly after authorities lifted a driving ban imposed Saturday to prevent suicide car bombings during voting. The ban was part of a nationwide security clampdown.
Nationwide turnout was estimated at 61 percent, but the competition was more intense in the Diyala, Ninevah, Salahuddin, where more than 66 percent of voters turned out.
Turnout by Shiites and Kurdish in regions outside the most contested provinces appeared lower than in January — despite calls by the top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for his followers to vote.
Still, the nine provinces of the south, the heartland of the Shiites, and the three provinces of the Kurdish autonomous zone in the north were expected to roll in big "yes" numbers.
In Karbala, a Shiite province just south of Baghdad, some 440,000 people voted — a 60 percent turnout — and 95 percent of them supported the draft, said the head of the province's election commission office, Safaa al-Mousawi.
Most southern provinces had only moderate turnout of between 33 and 66 percent, the commission said. Qadissiyah province was even lower, with less than a third of voters going to the polls. In January, Shiite turnout was above 80 percent.
The lower participation may have been out of belief that success was a sure bet or because of disillusionment with Iraq's Shiite leadership, which has been in power since April with little easing of numerous infrastructure problems.
"Why should I care? Nothing has changed since we have elected this government: no security, no electricity, no water," said Saad Ibrahim, a Shiite resident of Baghdad's Karrada district. "The constitution will not change that. The main issue is not getting this constitution passed, but how to stop terrorism."