Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq's landmark constitution was adopted fairly by a majority of voters during the country's Oct. 15 referendum, as Sunni Arab opponents failed to muster enough support to defeat it, election officials said Tuesday. A prominent Sunni politician called the vote "a farce."
Results released by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq after a 10-day-audit showed that Sunni Arabs, who had sharply opposed the draft document, failed to produce the two-thirds "no" vote they would have needed in at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces to defeat it.
Farid Ayar, an official with the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq who announced the results, said the commission's audit of the vote had turned up no significant fraud.
Carina Perelli, the U.N. elections chief, also praised a "very good job" with the audit and said "Iraq should be proud of the commission."
But Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni Arab member of the committee that drafted the constitution, called the referendum "a farce" and accused government forces of stealing ballot boxes to reduce the percentage of "no" votes in several mostly Sunni-Arab provinces.
"The people were shocked to find out that their vote is worthless because of the major fraud that takes place in Iraq," he said on Al-Arabiya TV.
Nationwide, 78.59 percent voted for the charter while 21.41 percent voted against, the commission said. The charter required a simple majority nationwide with the provision that if two-thirds of the voters in any three provinces rejected it, the constitution would be defeated.
Two mostly Sunni Arab provinces - Salahuddin and Anbar - had voted against the constitution by at least a two-thirds vote. The commission, which had been auditing the referendum results for 10 days, said a third province where many Sunnis live - Ninevah - produced a "no" vote of only 55 percent.
Ninevah had been a focus of fraud allegations since preliminary results showed a large majority of voters had approved the constitution, despite a large Sunni Arab population there.
Election commission officials and U.N. officials, who also took part in the audit, "found no cases of fraud that could affect the results of the vote," Ayar said.
The constitution, which many Kurds and majority Shiites strongly support, is considered another major step in the country's democratic transformation, clearing the way for the election of a new Iraqi parliament on Dec. 15. Such steps are considered important in any decision about the future withdrawal of U.S.-led forces from Iraq.
Many Sunni Arabs fear that the constitution will create two virtually autonomous and oil-rich mini-states of Kurds in the north and Sunnis in the south, while leaving many Sunnis isolated in poor central and western regions with a weak central government in Baghdad.
Some fear that the Sunni Arab loss in the referendum could influence more of them to join or support Sunni-led insurgents who are launching attacks across the country against Iraq's mostly Shiite and Kurdish government and U.S.-led forces.
Italy, a staunch U.S. ally in Iraq, welcomed the results and said it would keep supporting the political process in the country.
"Today marks the beginning of a new era of dialogue and reconciliation among all Iraqi people, beyond ethnic and religious differences, and shows that politics has defeated the violence of terror," said Foreign Minister and Deputy Premier Gianfranco Fini.
In a message to Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zibari, Fini also said, "My country has supported the political and electoral process with strength and conviction, and will continue to do so in the future."
Premier Silvio Berlusconi sent about 3,000 troops to Iraq to help with reconstruction after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The government is gradually pulling some of its contingent out of Iraq.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)