updated 10/21/2005 7:38:06 PM ET 2005-10-21T23:38:06

Sixty-three percent of Iraq’s 15.5 million registered voters cast their ballots in last weekend’s constitutional referendum, at least three percentage points higher than in January’s parliamentary elections, the electoral commission said Friday.

The highest turnout — 90 percent — was recorded in the northern Kurdish province of Irbil. The lowest was in the Sunni Arab province of Anbar, a hotbed of Iraq’s 2½-year-old insurgency, with 32 percent.

But Sunni Arabs participated in much larger numbers than in January, when most of them boycotted the vote. Only 2 percent of Anbar’s registered voters cast ballots in January.

Another Sunni Arab majority province, Salahuddin in central Iraq, saw the second-highest turnout — 88 percent — in last Saturday’s referendum, according to Farid Ayar, a senior member of The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq.

Salahuddin includes Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit and the insurgency strongholds of Samarra, Balad and Beiji. Anbar, which stretches for hundreds of miles west and northwest of Baghdad, includes other bastions of the insurgency, including Ramadi, Qaim and Haditha.

Turnout in Baghdad, a city of an estimated 6 million people, was 56 percent, said Ayar.

Across the country, some 9,775,000 people cast ballots.

Suspicious number of ‘yes’ votes
The official results are expected to be announced next week, a delay caused by the need to audit results from several provinces that commission officials said showed an unexpectedly high number of “yes” votes.

Initial figures leaked by electoral officials suggest the “yes” vote won in 16 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, with a vast majority in Salahuddin and Anbar voting “no.” That would mean the constitution’s passage, but it is not known how the audit will affect the final figures.

Turnout for January’s vote was estimated at about 60 percent. The impact of the Sunni Arab boycott was cushioned by high participation in Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated provinces. In contrast, the high Sunni Arab turnout for the referendum was offset by a relatively lower one in nine Shiite provinces compared to January.

U.S. and Iraqi leaders have said the Sunnis showed they want to participate in the political process.

Iraqis will return to the polls Dec. 15 in a general election to be held regardless of the result of the referendum. If the charter is adopted, the December election will produce a full-term parliament. If it is rejected, the vote will be for another interim chamber that will attempt again to draft a constitution.

Most Sunni Arabs — who account for about 20 percent of Iraq’s estimated 27 million people — oppose the draft, arguing that the extent of federalism enshrined in the document could lead to the country’s eventual breakup and that it fails to clearly state Iraq’s Arab identity.

The Shiite majority and Kurdish minority — who combine for about 80 percent of the population — overwhelmingly support the charter.

Opponents need two-thirds majority
Sunni Arab opponents needed to gain a two-thirds “no” vote in three provinces to veto the constitution, and they appear to have reached that requirement in Anbar and Salahuddin. They were also hoping to gain it in either Nineveh or Diyala provinces, where they make up a slim majority of the population.

But both also have sizable Kurdish and Shiite communities. Initial results showed around a 70 percent “yes” vote in each, a tally that raised eyebrows.

The turnout in Nineveh and Diyala, according to the Electoral Commission, was 58 percent and 66 percent respectively.

The Electoral Commission would not say which provinces are being audited by teams of Iraqi and international officials, or whether Nineveh and Diyala are among them.

The audit has raised questions of irregularities in the vote. Sunni Arabs have charged fraud. The Electoral Commission and U.N. officials supervising the vote insist the audit will ensure the count is clean.

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