BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq’s new constitution was formally ratified Tuesday after an overwhelming 79 percent of voters cast ballots in favor of the draft, but the result also revealed the deep sectarian divisions that threaten the country’s still precarious future.

The passage of the constitution was accompanied by the passing of another grim milestone: the 2,000th American death in a 2½-year-old war that shows no signs of winding down.

Hours after Iraqi officials in Baghdad confirmed the passage of the constitution the Pentagon announced that Staff Sgt. George Alexander Jr. of Killeen, Texas, had died of wounds suffered in an Oct. 17 roadside bombing in the town of Samarra, bringing to 2,000 the number of American deaths since the March 21, 2003, invasion.

He was also the 30th serviceman to die since the Oct. 15 referendum, an event that U.S. officials hoped would turn the tide of violence and enable American troops to start going home. But the bitter differences evident in the referendum results could also lead to renewed violence, embroiling U.S. forces even more.

Addressing a gathering of Air Force spouses in Washington, President Bush hailed the result as evidence of Iraq’s “incredible” progress.

“With their courageous vote, the Iraqi people have once again proved their determination to build a democracy united against extremism and violence,” he said.

With the document’s passage, the stage is now set for the next and final step in Iraq’s transition to full democracy in December, when fresh elections for a new government will be held under the terms of the democratically approved constitution.

The seemingly resounding affirmation of support for the U.S.-backed constitution masked wide regional differences, however, with a majority voting against the constitution in the four Sunni-dominated provinces in central Iraq where the insurgency rages and where the majority of American casualties occur.

The result almost exactly mirrored the country’s ethnic and sectarian makeup, with more than 99 percent of voters in some Kurdish and Shiite provinces in the north and south approving the document.

The Sunni minority that constitutes the backbone of the insurgency voted just as overwhelmingly against it, with 96 percent of voters in Sunni-dominated Anbar province and 82 percent in Salahuddin casting ballots against it. Many Sunnis fear the constitution will cut them out of power by favoring Shiite and Kurdish interests.

In a third Sunni-dominated province, Ninevah, 55 percent of voters rejected the draft, just short of the two-thirds threshold that would have scuttled the document.

Because of the sensitivity of the outcome in Ninevah, the province was one of four chosen for an audit by the election commission, which was why it took 10 days to release the final results, election officials said.

But the delay has also fueled allegations by Sunni leaders that the result was rigged, casting into doubt the likelihood that Sunnis will readily accept their defeat in their first foray into democratic politics.

“Definitely there was fraud,” said Saleh Mutlaq, a leader in the Sunni National Dialogue Council, which urged Sunnis to vote “no.”

“It is inconceivable that 45 percent of the people in Mosul voted “yes’ to the constitution. And these results of 99 percent and 98 percent in some provinces, it’s ridiculous.”

Election officials insisted the results were sound and defended their decision to delay announcing the final tallies. “We didn’t invent these figures. It took us a long time to get them,” commission spokesman Farid Ayar said.

But a loss of Sunni faith in the political process risks reviving support for the insurgency, which had seemed to wane over the referendum as the Sunni community focused on trying to vote down the constitution, Mutlaq warned.

“The people whom we convinced to participate in the political process and they obeyed us – how can we now convince them to come to the next election?” he said. “I am sorry the United States has put us in this situation, and I think Iraq is going to get worse.”

In the streets of the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya in Baghdad, most Sunnis who voted “no” seemed resigned to their failure to defeat the document and said it would not deter them from voting again.

“I feel this with pain, because I read the constitution and I believe it will shred the country into pieces, and leave us open to additional interference by Iran,” said Jamal al-Dulaimi, 45, a sales manager who said he was convinced the result was rigged. But he also said Sunnis could not afford to boycott the next election.

“We cannot repeat the same mistake and leave others to take our place in politics,” he said.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)

Ayad Samarraie of the Islamic Party said Sunnis should take heart from the result. They came close to defeating the constitution in Ninevah, where only 45 percent of registered voters cast ballots. He suspects violence, intimidation and the failure of polling stations to open in some areas deterred many Sunnis from voting, and if more had cast ballots, the constitution would have been defeated.

“The most important thing now is to convince people to participate heavily in the next election,” he said.

The result in Baghdad, where 55 percent of voters turned out, also suggested many Sunnis stayed away from the polls, he said. The constitution was approved by 77 percent of voters in the capital, where many Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds live alongside one another.

(END OPTIONAL TRIM)

Insurgent groups responded to the result with fresh calls for violence. In a statement posted on the al-Qaida Web site, the Victorious Sect Army, an al-Qaida-affiliated group, denounced the passage of the “Iranian Zionist constitution that serves the welfare of infidels” and called on Sunnis to redouble their attacks.

“No one will ever listen to the calls to be patient and show restraint in these circumstances,” the statement said. “Direct the strongest attacks against the enemy wherever they are … and make the enemy forget the mockery this constitution.”

The pace of insurgent violence has been quickening again in recent days, and on Tuesday al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for the triple suicide bombing the previous day at Baghdad’s landmark Palestine Hotel, home to several American news organizations.

The hotel was attacked because it is a “hotbed of intelligence officers (and) Australian, American and British security companies, the foreign thieves of the fortunes of this country,” said the statement, which was signed by Abu Maysara, who normally posts al-Qaida claims.



(Zainab Hassan contributed to this report.)



(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

—–

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

AP-NY-10-25-05 2158EDT


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.