BRIAN NAYLOR, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Brian Naylor.
In Baghdad, Iraqi officials are counting millions of ballots cast in yesterday's constitutional referendum. There was a high Sunni Arab turnout, with most reportedly voting no to the draft charter, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in London today said officials in Baghdad informed her that the draft constitution probably passed. There was relatively little violence at polling centers on election day, but the US military has reported that five American soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing in Ramadi yesterday. NPR's Anne Garrels joins us now from Baghdad.
Anne, is it possible the Sunnis would be or would--were able to defeat the constitution?
ANNE GARRELS reporting:
Well, that possibility now seems to be receding, but it was a lot closer than anyone thought and closer than US officials had hoped. It looks like Sunni Arabs got a two-thirds no in two provinces, but the key third province of Ninawa has probably alluded them. But Sunni Arabs have now accused the Kurds of packing Ninevah's capital with pro-constitution votes, and many polling places in Sunni areas of Ninevah were closed for technical or security reasons. So I think we'll probably see a lot of protests.
NAYLOR: Walk us through what's at stake in the voting.
GARRELS: Well, if the constitution passes, there will be elections in December for the first permanent government, which will last four years instead of just a few months. Because of compromises made at the last minute, the Sunni Arabs will still have a chance to change the constitution. Now if the Sunnis do defeat it, you start at square one with elections for yet another interim government and a whole new constitutional commission. Iraqi and US officials fear chaos if this happens, that an interim government will have insufficient authority.
Now it is positive that Sunnis took part in the process, that they wanted their voices heard this time. But they wanted it on the record they don't like this constitution. There is still a huge divide between how many Sunnis and Shiites see the future of their country, and there is a lack of trust. I know I'm beginning to sound like a, you know, stuck record by this point, but Sunnis do see the constitution as a way of cementing Shiite domination, providing Kurds and Shiites with mini-states, depriving them of oil revenues. They fear it will indeed lead to the breakup of the country.
Sunni Arabs, who dominated political life under Saddam Hussein, have to confront the reality they are a minority. And even though guaranteed a chance to review the constitution, they will continue to face a strong Shiite and Kurdish majority. And it is possible the Sunni community is going to decide the insurgency is their only hope to keep the pressure on and regain influence.
NAYLOR: And what were the Iraqis saying as they went to the polls yesterday?
GARRELS: Well, Sunnis expressed concerns they're now being discriminated against, just ironically as Baathists once discriminated against the Shiites. Sunni voters accuse Shiites of being under the influence of Iran. Shiites, in turn, accuse Sunnis of continuing to be under the influence of Sunni Arab neighbors who want to repress the Shiites. But some voters did draw a positive comparison with the last time they were asked to vote in a referendum, which, incidentally, was exactly three years ago. It was a yes-no vote to extend Saddam's rule. And several voters noted that at last they were free to make their own choices.
But one interesting point that could have important political implications. Shiites didn't vote enthusiastically this time, and this may be because they're just not happy with the Shiite-led government. This could lead to a whole kind of political upset in the future with new alliances being formed, and that's what many people are now hoping for.
NAYLOR: NPR's Anne Garrels in Baghdad. Thank you, Anne.
GARRELS: Thank you.
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