updated 10/25/2005 2:56:58 PM ET 2005-10-25T18:56:58

Iraq’s constitution was adopted by a majority in a fair vote during the Oct. 15 referendum, as Sunni Arab opponents failed to muster enough support to defeat it, election officials said Tuesday. A prominent Sunni politician called the balloting “a farce.”

The U.S. military announced the deaths of two Marines in fighting with insurgents last week in Baghdad, bringing to 1,999 the number of American service members killed since the war started in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

The referendum results, announced after a 10-day audit following allegations of fraud, confirmed previous indications that Sunni Arabs failed to produce the two-thirds “no” vote they would have needed in at least three of Iraq’s 18 provinces to defeat the constitution.

The charter is considered a major step in Iraq’s democratic reforms, clearing the way for the election of a new, full-term parliament on Dec. 15. Such steps are important in any decision about the future withdrawal of U.S.-led forces.

However, some fear the victory, which came despite a large turnout by Sunni Arabs to try to defeat it, could enrage many members of the minority and fuel their support for the country’s Sunni-led insurgency.

'Very good job'
Carina Perelli, the U.N. elections chief, praised a “very good job” with the audit of results by election officials and said “Iraq should be proud of the commission.”

Iraq’s top two coalition partners, the United States and Britain, also welcomed the results.

“The Iraqis are making inspiring progress toward building a democracy,” President Bush said. “By any standard or precedent of history, Iraq has made incredible political progress, from tyranny to liberation to national elections to the ratification of a constitution in the space of two and a half years.”

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Iraqis “have shown again their determination to defy the terrorists and take part in the democratic process.” Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini also welcomed the results, saying Italy would keep supporting the political process in the country.

Farid Ayar, an official with the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, said the audit had turned up no significant fraud.

Allegations of fraud from Sunnis
But Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni Arab member of the committee that drafted the constitution, called the referendum “a farce” and accused government forces of stealing ballot boxes to reduce the percentage of “no” votes in several mostly Sunni provinces.

“The people were shocked to find out that their vote is worthless because of the major fraud that takes place in Iraq,” he said on Al-Arabiya TV.

Adnan al-Dulaimi, a spokesman for the General Conference for the People of Iraq, a largely Sunni coalition of politicians and tribal leaders, said the audit took so long it left many Sunnis suspicious of possible fraud and manipulation. But he said his group “will work to educate Iraqis and get them to participate” in the December vote.

The charter was drafted after months of bitter negotiations that ended with some Sunni leaders agreeing to support it with provisions that future changes were possible.

The vote on the constitution was 78.59 percent for ratification and 21.41 percent against, the commission said. The charter required a simple majority nationwide with the provision that if two-thirds of the voters in any three provinces rejected it, the constitution would be defeated.

Three provinces voted no
The election commission said the predominantly Sunni province of Ninevah had produced a “no” vote of 55 percent. Only two other mostly Sunni provinces — Salahuddin and Anbar — had voted no by two-thirds or more. Ninevah had been a focus of fraud allegations since preliminary results had showed a large majority of voters had approved the constitution, despite a large Sunni Arab population there.

Many Kurds and majority Shiites strongly support the constitution, but Sunni Arabs fear it will create two virtually autonomous and oil-rich mini-states of Kurds in the north and Sunnis in the south, while leaving many Sunnis isolated in poor central and western regions with a weak central government in Baghdad.

Some 9.8 million Iraqis cast ballots, or 63 percent of registered voters. About 60 percent turned out for January’s legislative vote, which was boycotted by many Sunni Arabs.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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