Stealing Votes in Iraq?

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GETTING OUT THE VOTES: Iraqi election employees load ballot boxes in Baghdad

All across Iraq, the numbers seemed fantastic: More than 90 percent of voters in many Shi'ite and Kurdish provinces were reported to have voted for the proposed constitution in Saturday's referendum. In Anbar, a robustly Sunni region, the numbers were equally high against it. And in the swing provinces of Diyala and Nineveh, the numbers simply looked implausible.

For Iraqis who'd seen Saddam Hussein, "re-elected" on Oct. 15, 2002 with 100 percent of the vote, there may have been something oddly familiar in the news from the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, shortly after the polls closed on Saturday, that 99 percent of voters in some provinces in the Shi'ite south had approved the charter.

With a turnout at least equal if not greater than that in the January elections, the new Iraqi constitution is poised to pass with strong Shi'ite and Kurdish support. But that is unlikely to quell the disgruntlement of Iraq's Sunnis, who make up the bulk of the insurgency. Despite the massive effort of the Sunni Arabs to defeat the constitution by marshalling a two-thirds "no" vote in three of Iraq's 18 provinces, it appears only two — Anbar and Salahudin — were able to meet that requirement. But early reports from Nineveh and Diyala left Sunnis crying fraud and fuming that no matter what they do, they will be marginalized by the Shi'ites and Kurds

The wild numbers forced the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq to act. On Monday, it announced it would audit all "unusually high" returns in 12 Shi'ite and Kurdish provinces, and disavowed numbers released earlier. The audit would delay the results of the referendum by a few days, the commission said in a statement. "We are doing work according to international standards," said Dr. Farid Iyar, commission spokesman.

The Electoral Commission plan is an attempt to reestablish the legitimacy of the poll, but the real outcome of the voting may no longer matter. Iraqi political discussion is often ruled by conspiracy theories and tribal passions rather than by evidence and cool reason. Whatever the findings of the Electoral Commission, the constitution will likely be viewed as compromised by many Sunnis, its passage seen as proof that the political process has been rigged against them from the start.

"We have proved we are against the constitution," said Mishaan al-Jubouri, a Sunni legislator from the Liberation and Reconciliation Party. "The Sunni Arabs will reject this constitution totally."

"It will be very difficult to convince people to come back to the political process," said Saleh Mutlaq, a member of the National Dialogue Council, a Sunni group that strongly opposed the constitution. "People will be disappointed that their voices mean nothing." That will be bad for Iraq, "and for the people occupying it," he added ominously.

U.S. officials had hoped that including Sunnis in the drafting of the constitution and its subsequent passage would begin deflating the Sunni-led insurgency. But with a disputed outcome that leaves the Sunnis further disgruntled, the violence is unlikely to end.

It is in Mosul, in Nineveh Province, that the Sunnis may have their best reason to cry foul. Early numbers from the Associated Press — which aren't endorsed by the Electoral Commission — showed almost twice as many "yes" votes for the constitution as the total number of voters in January's elections for the National Assembly, meaning that every new voter and then some voted for the constitution. Nineveh is generally considered a majority Sunni province, and Mosul was the hometown of many of Iraq's generals and other officers before the 2003 invasion.

"Mosul doesn't make any sense," said Mutlaq.

U.S. soldiers stationed in Mosul told TIME that District Election Officers had moved polling sites that day, confusing voters. In one case, they claimed, an official had moved a polling site to his office at another school two miles from the old site without informing anyone. There were also reports of election officials separating the vote tally sheets from the ballot boxes, allowing them to be marked separately — and possibly fraudulently.

"It wouldn't surprise me if the election was rigged," said a U.S. Army officer in Mosul who requested anonymity and who worked on security arrangements for the poll with Iraqi security and election officials. "I don't even trust our election process."