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Attacks kill at least 17 as final results expected on Iraqi constitution

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Insurgents launched a coordinated car-bomb attack Monday on the Palestine and Sheraton hotel complex—one of Baghdad's most famous landmarks—less than two hours after it became clear that Iraq's Sunni Muslim Arab minority had overwhelmingly rejected a proposed national constitution. Final nationwide results will be announced Tuesday.

At least 17 people died in the bomb attacks, and two dozen wounded were treated in the shredded remains of the Palestine Hotel lobby.

The bomb attack at about 5:40 p.m. targeted the hotel complex in the city center known as the site of most international news broadcasts from the city and for its view of Fardos Square, where celebrating Iraqis tore down a statue of Saddam Hussein in April 2003.

The attack began when one or two suicide bombers drove cars into the 9-foot-high, razor wire-topped blast walls surrounding the two tall hotels, though U.S. military officials said the initial attack might have been two rocket blasts instead of car bombs.

The explosions knocked a hole in the wall, and two minutes later television cameras recorded an explosives-packed cement truck rumbling through the gap and between the hotels before detonating.

Shortly after that explosion, which sent a cloud of debris and fire skyward, another car bomb detonated across the square. Police said the last explosion probably went off prematurely and had been intended to catch rescue personnel and residents who rushed to the scene.

Iraq's national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, called the attack a "very clear" attempt to take control of the hotels and seize Western journalists—who've made up a significant portion of the hotels' guests since the invasion—as hostages.

Security personal on the scene, however, said there was no follow-up ground assault and that the only shots in the area were Iraqi military and police spraying gunfire, as they frequently do after such attacks.

The bombing came shortly after election officials announced preliminary referendum results that showed the deep divide between the nation's Sunni Kurds and Shiite Muslim majority on the one hand and its Sunni Arabs on the other. Officials said they hoped to have final election results Tuesday, 10 days after the voting.

The early results, representing essentially 100 percent of the vote in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces, showed the constitution winning approval by a large margin, 77 percent to 23 percent. But where it lost, it lost big: In Sunni Arab-dominated Anbar and Salahuddin provinces, 97 percent and 82 percent of voters said no.

If "no" votes in one of the four remaining provinces total more than 66 percent, the constitution will have been defeated. A "no" vote has always been considered possible in Ninevah province, the home of the city of Mosul, which has yet to be reported.

In the Shiite and Kurdish provinces, approval was close to unanimous. In Dhouk and Sulaimaniyah provinces, 99 percent of voters said yes.

The high percentages raised suspicions that the vote may have been rigged.

On the streets across Iraq, residents already were questioning the voting. Newspapers wondered why the vote totals were taking so long, and reported widespread rumors of foul play.

In Mosul, Abdulh abu Khaled, an official with the Reconciliation and Liberation Party, a Sunni Arab group, said voters feared that the results were being adjusted so that the constitution would pass. He said, based on reports of party members monitoring the vote count, it was clear that it hadn't passed.

"We're afraid that today they've forged it," he said. "We do not trust the result that will be announced soon."

The fears all stem from the same fact: that a simple ballot, on which voters only checked a box that said "No" or one that said "Yes," has taken so long to count.

"The United States has blessed the constitution before announcing the results, which means it will be passed no matter what," he said.

Eisa Hassoon, 37, a city employee in Mosul, said it more simply: "I said no, and everyone here said no. Now they are cheating with the results."

Izzadeen al-Mohammadi, the head of the Iraqi Electoral Commission, said Monday that the results were slow in coming because officials wanted to make sure the count was fair and accurate. He said the count had been going on under the eyes of international observers and a cross-section of Iraqi political party officials. He wouldn't comment on what the final tally might be, but said it would reflect the vote accurately.

"People can make any allegations they want, but we are telling you the truth," he said.

Mousa Jad Aziz, the president of Baghdad University, said he feared that the constitution was on the verge of defeat. Even if it passes, the vote shows Iraq is far from being a unified nation.

"In Tikrit, Saddam's city (in Salahuddin province), they don't like anything that comes after Saddam," he said. "In Anbar, people are fed up with the military, the terrorism, everything. Nothing written under an occupation was going to pass there."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Zaineb Obeid and Hassan al Jubor contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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