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Iraqis approve new constitution in a split vote

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's proposed constitution won voters' approval, election officials announced Tuesday, even as the results showed that the minority Sunni Muslim Arabs overwhelmingly rejected the document, which was billed as a consensus-building charter.

The announcement of the results came as the U.S. military announced the death of a soldier in San Antonio—Staff Sgt. George T. Alexander Jr., 34, of Killeen, Texas—from wounds sustained in Iraq, bringing the total of American dead since the war started to 2,000.

The split constitutional vote left some wondering whether the document would succeed in drawing Sunni Arabs into the political process and away from the violent insurgency, as Iraqi and U.S. officials had hoped.

In largely homogenous Shiite Muslim provinces, up to 99 percent of voters approved the document. In Anbar, a Sunni stronghold, 97 percent rejected it.

Overall, 78.59 percent of voters approved the document, the Independent Electoral Commission said.

In Washington, the Bush administration praised the results.

"It's a landmark day in the history of Iraq," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "The political process is continuing to move forward in Iraq, and it is an encouraging sign to see more and more people participating in the process."

Allegations of fraud, particularly among those who rejected the document, began to build during the unexpectedly long 10-day vote count. Some Sunnis said they were worried that the government would fix future elections.

"The elections were faked," Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni member of the constitutional drafting committee, said in a television interview. "The Iraqi is devastated. He knows his vote is worthless."

Supporters of rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr—whose support for the document was lukewarm—said the results were inaccurate in the Shiite-dominated south, suggesting support for the constitution was weaker than the final tally showed.

"It's a conspiracy by the political parties, especially those who are running the government," said Sheik Ghaith al-Tamimi, an aide to al-Sadr.

Election officials and international observers dismissed any suggestion of impropriety, saying there were several safeguards—including international monitors supervising the counting—to maintain the integrity of the results. They said it took 10 days to release the results because they were double-checking the numbers.

To defeat the constitution, two-thirds of voters in three of Iraq's 18 provinces had to reject it. On Monday, elections officials announced that two Sunni provinces, Anbar and Salahuddin (81.75 percent) had voted "no."

That left Ninevah, an ethnically mixed northern province, with a deciding role. A majority there—55 percent—voted "no," but failed to meet the 66 percent requirement spelled out in the interim constitution.

Many residents in Mosul, the province's capital, said they were suspicious of the tally, saying they'd voted against the document.

"Most of Ninevah's residents said `no' to the constitution. And there were rumors that 85 percent said `no,'" said Rabeha Mohammed, a literature professor at Mosul University. "I reject these results just as I reject the constitution."

Shiite and Sunni Kurdish politicians said the Sunni Arabs should join in December elections and make their case to voters at that time.

Ali Debaugh, a leading Shiite member of the National Assembly, said: "I believe if Sunnis want to live in one unified Iraq, they shouldn't stick to rejecting the process and constitution."

The Sunni Arabs said they disliked provisions in the constitution that allowed strong local autonomy because they feared the nation would fragment. They also objected to provisions that created ambiguity about whether the central government would control revenue from Iraq's natural resources. Sunnis live in parts of Iraq that have few mineral or energy resources.

In a last-minute deal before the referendum, that sect's largest political party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, agreed with top Shiite and Kurdish leaders to urge supporters to vote "yes" in exchange for the option of amending the constitution during the new National Assembly.

In return, the Shiites and Kurds hoped that the Iraqi Islamic Party could rally its base in Mosul, Ninevah's capital. It's unclear how much sway the party had.

The division of the vote along ethnic lines has created fears that the Sunni minority, the backbone of the insurgency, will hesitate to join in the Dec. 15 legislative elections that are required under the constitution. Governing the country also could prove difficult if politicians are preoccupied with debating the details of Iraq's governing document.

The Sunnis "... will play the role of rejection in the new Iraq," said Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan and opponent of the war. "They are going to demand that all the controversial points in the constitution be addressed right away."

On Tuesday, the Iraqi Islamic Party already was alluding to the next National Assembly's ability to change the document, suggesting there would be major changes.

The voter turnout for this election—9.85 million, or 63 percent of eligible voters—was about a million higher than in January's parliamentary election. Election officials called it a sign of progress.

"By international standards, we would expect fewer people to vote in a referendum than a normal election," election official Hamdia al-Hussaini said. "These results show that Iraqis are taking democracy very seriously."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy and Mohammed al Awsy contributed to this report from Baghdad; Hassan al Jubouri contributed from Tikrit.)

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Major provisions of the constitution:

_The executive branch: There's a prime minister and president. The legislative body chooses a president for a four-year term. He's the "symbol of the nation's unity." The president names the prime minister, and the prime minister names his Cabinet, all subject to legislative approval. The prime minister runs the government and leads the military forces.

_The legislative branch: A unicameral legislature will have one seat representing 100,000 citizens, or a total of 275 seats, elected by a "general, direct, secret ballot." It must meet for eight months a year.

_The judiciary branch: The judiciary system is an independent entity separate from the Ministry of Justice, which is under the prime minister's office. A high court will be the Iraqi equivalent of a U.S. Supreme Court, with justices appointed by the prime minister and approved by the legislature.

_Islam: Islam is the official religion of the state. No law can contradict the "undisputed laws of Islam," but all laws must be democratic. The regular court system will rule on un-Islamic law, making enforcement ultimately responsible to voters and not religious leaders.

_Federalism: The constitution endorses the Kurdish region remaining an autonomous region. It also allows other provinces to group together and become regions with high degrees of local autonomy. A region must share revenue from its natural resources with the central government. The details are vague and await legislative action within six months that spells out the regions' relationship with the executive branch of government.

_The Baath Party: The government will continue weeding out prominent Baathist elements from Saddam Hussein's former regime, while allowing low-level Baath Party members to continue playing political roles.

_Women's rights: The constitution says that laws will be applied equally, regardless of sex, sect, religion, nationality or economic status. And it says that "equality opportunity is a right guaranteed to all Iraqis, and the state shall take necessary steps to achieve this."

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051025 USIRAQ update

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