U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in London yesterday that “the general assessment is that it will probably pass.”
And she said later that even if the draft constitution does not pass, reports of large numbers of Sunnis turning out to cast ballots indicate that that community may finally be returning to mainstream Iraqi politics.
"If [the Iraqi draft constitution] passes, then democracy has been served," Rice said. "If for some reason it does not, then democracy has been served. It would be like saying, a referendum in the United States, because it didn't pass, that it somehow was against the democratic process. The key here is the Sunnis have voted in large numbers. That means they're casting their lot now with the democratic process, and one way or another the Iraqis are going to be in a position to move forward."
Independent Election Commission chief Abd al-Husayn al-Hindawi told Reuters yesterday that some 63 percent of all Iraqi voters had turned out for the 15 October referendum. He provided no figures for majority Sunni areas, but news agencies reported large crowds voting there. By contrast, most Sunni Arabs boycotted Iraq’s legislative elections on 30 January.
Rice’s early statement that the constitution appears to have been endorsed by the public has angered some Sunni Arab leaders who had called for the document’s rejection.
Salih Mutlaq, a spokesman for the National Dialogue Council, said: “Condoleezza Rice made a statement. I believe it is a signal to the election commission to pass the constitution.”
Other Sunni Arab leaders who called for defeating the draft constitution have also expressed fears that the vote results could be rigged. But some say they will work within the political system if they need to contest the referendum results.
Sa'dun al-Zubaydi, an independent member of parliament who was a member of the constitutional drafting committee, said yesterday that “if the results need to be contested, we’ll do it through the channels.”
Iraqi electoral officials say the vote was fair and that they have not received any formal complaints of fraud. Adil Lami of the election commission said yesterday that the commission “succeeded in holding an honest and transparent referendum.”
U.S. and Iraqi officials hope the referendum -- by giving all Iraqis a chance to vote 'yes' or 'no' to the constitution -- will convince Sunni Arabs that their voice matters in Baghdad.
Iraqi government spokesman Laith Kubba said yesterday that whether the constitution passes or fails the vote, all groups in the country must live and work together.
"We know well that either way -- if it is 'yes' or a 'no' -- it's going to be a tough outcome that we need to handle. We know that there is a level of polarization, and Iraq, as one big family -- we know that if part of the family is not happy, you cannot live in the same house,” Kubba said.
The Sunnis dominated the political life of modern Iraq until the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Some Sunnis are reported to fear their community is being marginalized in democratic, Shi'a-majority Iraq. Insurgent groups are mostly based in Sunni Arab areas.
Whether the constitution passed or failed the referendum, negotiations over it will continue.
Prior to the referendum, a prominent, largely Sunni Arab party won agreement from Shi’ite and Kurdish leaders to create a constitutional review committee after parliamentary elections in December. If the review committee proposes changes, they would be put to a vote in the new parliament and would also likely go to a public referendum.
The deal to form a constitutional review committee came in exchange for the largely Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party urging its supporters to vote 'yes' for the draft constitution. The party hopes that Sunnis will turn out in large numbers for the December parliamentary poll to redress the community’s low representation in the current National Assembly, which is dominated by Shi’ite and Kurdish parties.
If it turns out the draft constitution failed in the referendum, the document will have to be completely rewritten after the new parliament is elected in December.
Early reports from Iraqi officials indicate that the draft constitution passed because opponents were unable to muster the two-thirds majority in at least three provinces needed to reject it. Election supervisors report a majority ‘no’ vote appears likely only in the mainly Sunni Arab provinces of Al-Anbar and Salahuddin.
Governing officials in two other provinces with large Sunni populations, Nineveh and Diyala, say a majority of voters there cast 'yes’ ballots.
Voters are believed to have overwhelmingly supported the constitution in areas with large Shi’ite and Kurdish populations.
The Sunni community is reported to be particularly concerned by provisions in the draft constitution that extend the possibility of self-rule to majority Shi’ite areas of south and central Iraq. Self-rule is already enjoyed by Kurdish-administered northern Iraq.
Many Sunni Arab leaders have argued that Shi’ite self-rule would divide the country. They worry that autonomous authorities in both the north and south could hoard Iraq’s oil wealth and leave the Sunni center, which has no oil fields, impoverished.
For RFE/RL's full coverage of Iraq's constitutional referendum, see "Iraq Votes 2005"