BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's election commission announced Monday that officials were investigating "unusually high" numbers of "yes" votes in about a dozen provinces during Iraq's landmark referendum on a new constitution, raising questions about irregularities in the balloting.
Word of the review came as Sunni Arab (search) leaders repeated accusations of fraud after initial reports from the provinces suggested the constitution had passed. Among the Sunni allegations are that police took ballot boxes from heavily "no" districts, and that some "yes" areas had more votes than registered voters.
The Electoral Commission made no mention of fraud, and an official with knowledge of the election process cautioned that it was too early to say whether the unusual numbers were incorrect or if they would have an effect on the outcome.
But questions about the numbers raised tensions over Saturday's referendum, which has already sharply divided Iraqis. Most of the Shiite (search) majority and the Kurds (search) — the coalition which controls the government — support the charter, while most Sunni Arabs sharply opposed a document they fear will tear Iraq to pieces and leave them weak and out of power.
Irregularities in Shiite and Kurdish areas, expected to vote strongly "yes," may not affect the final outcome. The main electoral battlegrounds were provinces with mixed populations, two of which went strongly "yes." There were conflicting reports whether those two provinces were among those with questionable figures.
In new violence, the U.S. military said that its warplanes and helicopters bombed two western villages Sunday, killing an estimated 70 militants near a site where five American soldiers died in a roadside blast. Residents said at least 39 of the dead were civilians, including children.
A sandstorm also became a factor in the vote count, preventing many tallies from being flown from the provinces to Baghdad, where they are to be compiled and checked. The Electoral Commission said it needed "a few more days" to produce final results, citing the need for the audit.
At Baghdad's counting center, election workers cut open plastic bags of tally sheets sent from stations in the capital and its surroundings — the only ones to have arrived so far. Nearby, more workers, dressed in white T-shirts and caps bearing the election commission's slogan, sat behind computer screens punching in the numbers.
Election officials in many provinces have released their initial counts, indicating that Sunni attempts to defeat the charter failed.
But the commission found that the number of "yes" votes in most provinces appeared "unusually high" and would be audited, with random samples taken from ballot boxes to test them, said the commission's head, Adil al-Lami.
The high numbers were seen among the nine Shiite provinces of the south and the three Kurdish ones in the north, al-Lami told The Associated Press.
Those provinces reported to AP "yes" votes above 90 percent, with some as high as 97 and 98 percent.
Two provinces that are crucial to the results — Ninevah and Diyala, which have mixed Sunni, Shiite and Kurd populations — were not among those that appeared unusual, al-Lami said. He said their results "were reasonable and balanced according to the nature of the population in those areas."
But the official with knowledge of the counting process said the unexpected results were not isolated to the Shiite and Kurdish provinces and were "all around the country." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the count.
Sunni opponents needed to win over either Diyala or Ninevah to veto the constitution. Sunnis had to get a two-thirds "no" vote in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces to defeat the charter, and they appeared to have gotten it in western Anbar and central Salahuddin, both heavily Sunni.
Ninevah and Diyala are each believed to have a slight Sunni Arab majority. But results reported by provincial electoral officials showed startlingly powerful "yes" votes of up to 70 percent in each.
Allegations of fraud in those areas could throw into question the final outcome. But questions of whether the reported strong "yes" vote there is unusual are complicated by the fact that Iraq has not had a proper census in some 15 years, meaning the sectarian balance is not firmly known.
A prominent Sunni Arab politician, Saleh al-Mutlaq, claimed Diyala in particular had seen vote rigging. He said he was told by the manager of a polling station in a Kurdish district of Diyala that 39,000 votes were cast although only 36,000 voters were registered there.
Al-Mutlaq said soldiers broke into a polling station in a Sunni district of the Diyala city of Baqouba (search) and took ballot boxes heavy with "no" votes and that later results showed a "yes" majority. His claims could not be independently verified.
"Bottom line, we can say that the whole operation witnessed interference from government forces," he said.
Al-Mutlaq and Sunni Arab parliament member Meshaan al-Jubouri said polling officials in Ninevah had informed them that the provincial capital, Mosul, voted predominantly "no" — as high as 80 percent — while the Electoral Commission reported a 50-50 split.
Ninevah's deputy governor, Khesro Goran, a Kurd, dismissed the claims. "These declarations are excuses to justify the loss, and we did not receive any complaint from the (Electoral Commission) about such fears. Besides, the whole operation was under the supervision of the United Nations ... so no fraud occurred."
Sunni Arab turnout appeared to have been strong — in contrast to January parliamentary elections that the community largely boycotted.
President Bush said Monday that he was pleased that Sunni Arabs cast so many ballots and said it was indication that Iraqis want to settle disputes peacefully.
"I was pleased to see that the Sunnis have participated in the process," Bush said. "The idea of deciding to go into a ballot box is a positive development.
Many Sunnis fear the new decentralized government outlined in the constitution will deprive them of their fair share of the country's vast oil wealth by creating virtually independent mini-states of Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south, while leaving Sunnis isolated in central and western Iraq.
If the constitution indeed passed, the first full-term parliament since Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003 will install a new government by Dec. 31 following Dec. 15 elections. If the charter failed, the parliament will be temporary, tasked with drawing up a new draft constitution.