Iraq's constitution seemed headed toward passage yesterday despite strong opposition from Sunni Arabs who turned out in surprisingly high numbers in an effort to stop it. The apparent victory was muted, though, by the prospect that the vote result might divide the country further.
Rejection seemed more and more impossible as vote-counting continued across the country. In one key finding, Ninevah, one of three crucial northern and central provinces that Sunni Arab opponents pushed hard to swing their way, appeared to have gone strongly for a "yes" vote.
In London, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice predicted it was likely to pass, although she cautioned that she did not know the outcome for certain.
Meanwhile, five US soldiers were killed in Iraq on Saturday when their vehicle was hit by an improvised bomb in the western city of Ramadi, the US military said yesterday. The deaths took to at least 1,970 the number of Americans to die in the Iraq war.
Few in Ramadi took part in Saturday's referendum because of clashes between US and Iraqi forces and Sunni Arab insurgents.
According to a vote count from 260 of the provinces 300 polling stations, about 300,000 in Ninevah voted "yes" for the constitution, and only 80,000 voted "no," said Samira Mohammed, spokeswoman for the election commission in the province's capital, Mosul, and Abdul-Ghani Boutani, a senior official in the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
Ballots from the remaining 40 stations still had to be counted, but it would be impossible to turn the vote around to a two-thirds "no" Sunni opponents would need.
The constitution is a crucial step in Iraq's transition to democracy after two decades of rule by Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. Washington is hoping it passes so that Iraqis can form a legitimate, representative government, tame the insurgency and enable the 150,000 US troops to begin to withdraw.
A nationwide majority "yes" vote is assured by the widespread support of the constitution among the Shiites -- who make up 60 percent of the country's 27 million people -- and the Kurds -- another 20 percent.
So to defeat the constitution, Sunnis have to muster the two-thirds rejection in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces. They were likely to reach that threshold in the vast Sunni heartland of Anbar province in the west. Salahuddin province also looked possible, but with Ninevah out of the running, they would need to get the province of Diyala, which will also be difficult.
An elections official in Baghdad told reporters that indications point to the charter having been approved. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the counting was still going on.
Sunnis turned out in force in Saturday's voting, a stark contrast to parliamentary elections in January, which they boycotted as a protest to a political process they felt was handing the country's Shiite majority unfair power. That move cost them, leaving them a miniscule presence in parliament.
The lines of Sunnis at the polls in the key electoral battleground states suggested they wanted to now participate in the political system.
Now the question is whether they will accept the passage of a constitution despite a significant "no" vote among the Sunni community. While moderates could take a more active role in politics, hard-liners could turn to the insurgency, deciding violence is the only hope of retaining influence in the country.