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Counting begins in Iraq referendum

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Celebratory gunfire broke out in several Baghdad neighbourhoods after polls closed, and senior electoral official Abdel Hindawi said that according to a preliminary estimate, more than 61 per cent of registered Iraqis cast ballots.



Iraqis voted in force today on a draft constitution that turns another page on the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein amid a general calm that contrasted with violence during January's general election.

Insurgents nonetheless evaded a massive security clampdown to kidnap 10 poll workers and kill six other people.

About 15.5 million Iraqis had a chance to vote on the charter, which lays out a democratic framework for a new Iraq but has sharply divided the country on ethnic lines and was drafted only after weeks of tortuous negotiations.

The charter requires a simple majority to be approved, but would be rejected if two-thirds of the votes in at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces say no.

Results should be known within three days, chief electoral official Adil al-Lami said.

"But if people have serious complaints, of course we will check to see if they are justified. That would delay a final declaration," he said.

Celebratory gunfire broke out in several Baghdad neighbourhoods after polls closed, and senior electoral official Abdel Hindawi said that according to a preliminary estimate, more than 61 per cent of registered Iraqis cast ballots.

In Washington, US President George W Bush hailed the referendum as "a critical step forward" in war-torn Iraq's move towards democracy, whether or not the charter passed.

"By casting their ballots, the Iraqi people deal a severe blow to the terrorists and send a clear message to the world: Iraqis will decide the future of their country through peaceful elections, not violent insurgency," he said.

Kurdish President Jalal Talabani had said after casting his ballot inside Baghdad's heavily-protected Green Zone: "I think the majority will vote yes."

In a second national vote since Saddam was toppled in April 2003, Iraqis were asked one question: "Do you approve the draft constitution of Iraq?"

However, under a deal reached on Wednesday to try to bring disaffected Sunni Arabs on board, voters decided on what is effectively a partial constitution since politicians agreed that amendments could be considered after new elections in December.

Many Sunnis, who make up about 20 per cent of Iraq's 26 million population, fear federal provisions in the charter could lead to the break-up of Iraq and leave control of its vast oil wealth in the hands of the majority Shi'ites and the Kurds.

Saleh al-Motlaq, a Sunni spokesman for the National Council for Dialogue who had helped draft the charter, said he had voted no because he was not satisfied with the result.

"I took part in the consultation and I voted no to the constitution," he said.

Despite a raft of security measures, including a ban on cars and weapons and the closure of international borders, three Iraqi soldiers were killed in a bomb blast as they inspected a polling station north-east of the capital.

Two civilians were killed near Baquba, north-east of Baghdad, when a homemade bomb targeted US forces who were guarding polling boxes, local police said.

West of Baghdad, a civilian was shot dead during an attack on police near a polling station. But generally, voting was peaceful and turnout particularly heavy in the Kurdish north and southern Shi'ite areas.

In the restive Al-Anbar province, however, 10 workers for the Iraqi independent electoral commission were kidnapped by gunmen while heading to the polls they were supposed to staff.

"Today we are in transition, we are about to attain political stability built on a constitutional foundation," Shi'ite Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari told reporters.

In Baghdad, dozens of men and women who came on foot to vote entered polling stations in separate lines only after being checked three times by police and US soldiers.

The constitution "represents hope for Iraq even if some things are missing which will be addressed later," said Jamil Musawi, a voter in the town of Kut, south of Baghdad.

The top UN envoy in Iraq, Ashraf Qazi, called the referendum "a very important benchmark in the political transition" and stressed that "whatever the choice of the Iraqis the political process will proceed".

But underscoring hostility among Sunni Arabs, posters outside a prominent mosque in Baghdad showed Iraq cut up by bloody sabres held by hands attached to US and Iranian flags.

"No to the constitution that tears the unity of Iraq," it declared.

In Hilla, south of Baghdad, loudspeakers at Shi'ite mosques blared: "The constitution is Iraq's salvation," backing the recommendation of Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

Security measures for the vote included a declaration of a four-day national holiday that began on Thursday, an extended curfew, a ban on civilians carrying weapons and a ban on the use of personal vehicles.

International borders were closed to traffic except for the transport of food, water and fuel. Baghdad airport is shut down until Monday.

The US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said if the democratic process advanced and if enough Iraq security forces could be trained, the US military presence could begin to decrease next year.

Created by keza
Last modified 2005-12-06 03:15 AM

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