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Iraqi election officials to investigate possible voting irregularities

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's electoral commission said Monday that it would delay announcing the results of the nation's constitutional referendum because of possible voting irregularities.

In at least six provinces, the turnout to vote on the measure appears to have topped 95 percent, said Izzadin al Mohammadi, a senior commission official.

"We have seen statements coming from most governorates indicating ... high numbers that require us to recheck, compare and audit them, as they are unusually high according to international standards," the commission said in a statement Monday evening.

Asked about the political ramifications of possible fraudulent voting in a referendum held up by the Bush administration as a large step toward democracy, Mohammadi stressed that the audit "is not because we're concerned about fraud. It is a random check done on certain provinces and polling stations."

The audit announcement came amid allegations by the nation's Sunni minority, some 20 percent of Iraq's population, that the voting was marred by fraud. While it appears that Sunni voters mustered a two-thirds vote against the constitution in two provinces—Anbar and Salahuddin—they couldn't do so in a third, the requisite number for defeating the document.

Much of the attention has focused on Ninevah province, home to Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, and the site of some of the most serious polling infractions during national elections in January.

If there was ballot-box stuffing in Ninevah that affected the outcome of the swing province's vote for or against the constitution, it could create a politically explosive situation in a nation already teeming with sectarian strife. The questions come during a very tenuous time for Sunnis as the trial of former Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein is slated to begin Wednesday.

"If it's proven that there was fraud in Ninevah or any other place it would affect the entire Iraqi political process and the credibility of democracy in Iraq," said Naseer al-Ani, a senior official in the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group that at the last minute, to the consternation of other Sunnis, backed the constitution.

The news of the voting audit came on a day when there were still further reminders of the guerrilla war that's rocked the nation for more than two years. U.S. Marines said Monday that they killed some 70 insurgents on Sunday in several battles across the insurgent hotbed of Anbar. The battles included F-15 fighter jet bombing runs, a barrage of fire from a Cobra attack helicopter and a complex insurgent attack on the government center in the city of Ramadi, which resulted in a F-18 missile strike being called in.

Election officials said early results indicated that at least 66 percent of registered voters in Ninevah participated. It wasn't clear, though, if that turnout represented a heavy Sunni presence, or an all-out push in the Kurdish sections of Mosul and the Kurdish villages to the north.

Many Sunnis suspect that Ninevah's Kurdish leadership, heavily in favor of the constitution, may have used their men in Iraqi security forces to cheat.

"It's a fraud; it was a rigged election," Fakhri al-Qaisi, an official with the influential Sunni political group the National Dialogue Council, said in remarks echoed by several Sunni leaders.

Election officials acknowledged after January's elections that militia members in Ninevah—they didn't say from which political party—took ballots and ballot boxes from polling centers and returned them stuffed to the brim.

"Sometimes they were wearing (Iraqi) national guard" uniforms, Fareed Ayar, the commission spokesman, said at the time.

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(Dulaimy, who reported from Baghdad, is a special correspondent.)

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

Iraq

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