Officials Pore Over Iraq Referendum Vote

The Electoral Commission (search) said Saturday that no significant fraud had been found in Iraq's landmark constitutional referendum, while experts pored over votes to ensure no irregularities occurred in a key province that could determine the final outcome.

The commission released partial figures from 13 of Iraq's 18 provinces, but the audit of votes in the northwestern province of Ninevah (search) meant the final outcome from the Oct. 15 referendum would not be made public before Monday or Tuesday.

The audit, which began Saturday in Ninevah and was wrapping up in three other provinces, was ordered after unusually high "yes" votes in some areas were discovered, fueling charges of fraud from Sunni Arab leaders who oppose the charter.

Electoral Commission officials insisted Saturday that no fraud had been uncovered and no major complaints had been lodged through its system for filing grievances.

"We did not find any significant violations that would have any effect on the final results of the referendum," commission member Safwat Rashid (search) said at a news conference.

The audit is examining numbers that were "statistically higher than expected," but that does not necessarily mean irregularities were the cause, Rashid said.

Commission member Adel al-Lami announced partial results from all but five provinces, based on half the votes cast in each. Only Salahuddin, a heavily Sunni Arab province north of Baghdad, voted "no" — and it surpassed a two-thirds rejection, at 81 percent "no."

To defeat the charter, Sunni Arab opponents need to meet the two-thirds threshold in two more provinces. They likely reached it in Anbar, which is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab, though the commission released no results from there. However, getting to that mark in a third province, either Ninevah or Diyala, appeared difficult.

Saturday's results showed "yes" votes above 90 percent in seven southern Shiite Muslim provinces, while two Kurdish provinces in the north, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk, had "yes" votes around 99 percent.

Iraq's Shiite majority and the large Kurd minority strongly support the constitution, while many Sunni Arabs oppose it.

The counting of the remaining half of the votes in those nine provinces and Salahuddin likely won't change the final numbers significantly. All have relatively homogeneous populations and their numbers reflect the direction they were expected to go.

There could be some shifting in the other three provinces reported Saturday as being in the "yes" camp — Baghdad (78 percent), Diyala (51 percent) and Tamim (62 percent) — because they have highly mixed ethnic populations.

With Diyala looking doubtful for a big "no" vote, constitution opponents need Ninevah, which has a slight Sunni Arab majority but large Shiite and Kurdish communities. Initial results from there showed a 70 percent "yes" vote, but later estimates put it at 55 percent "yes."

The Ninevah audit team will likely take two days to finish. A review was conducted there because it was such a close vote and such a sensitive province, so the team wants to make sure counting was correct, not necessarily because they expect to find problems, officials said.

Audits also were conducted in the heavily Shiite southern provinces of Babil and Basra and the northern Kurdish province of Irbil. Those audit teams were expected to be back in Baghdad late Saturday.

Some 9,775,000 Iraqis cast ballots in the referendum, or 63 percent of registered voters. That was slightly higher than the 60 percent turnout for January's legislative vote, which was boycotted by many Sunni Arabs.