BAGHDAD (Reuters) -Iraqi voters have probably approved a new U.S.-backed constitution, overcoming fierce Sunni Arab opposition in a vote Washington hopes will boost its beleaguered strategy in Iraq, results showed on Sunday.
Early counts from Saturday”s referendum indicated the vote split as expected along largely communal lines, reflecting the bitter ethnic and religious tensions that have cost thousands of Iraqi lives since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
"This is a very positive day for the Iraqi people and as well for world peace," U.S. President George W. Bush told reporters in Washington. "Democracies are peaceful countries."
Tight security kept the polls mostly trouble-free although five U.S. soldiers and a Marine were killed in the Sunni west, the military said, raising the U.S. death toll in Iraq to 1,971.
Also, residents said heavy fighting broke out in Ramadi, a rebellious Sunni Arab city west of Baghdad that strongly opposed the constitution. They said U.S. aircraft bombed some areas and a doctor said 25 people had been killed. The U.S. military had no immediate information on operations in the area.
Despite high turnout in some Sunni Arab areas, partial counts suggested the charter”s opponents did not muster enough "No" votes to veto it. According to the referendum rules, a two-thirds "No" vote in three of Iraq”s 18 provinces would block the constitution even if most Iraqis backed it.
"All indications we are getting … are encouraging and positive for a ”Yes” vote for this constitution," Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told CNN. "So my guess is, yes, it will be passed."
That confidence grew as more unofficial results trickled in, and by the end of the day Iraqi officials were saying privately the constitution was certain to have been approved.
Speaking in London as votes were still being counted in Iraq, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the charter had probably passed — angering some Sunni leaders who accused her of pressuring Iraqi officials to fix the result.
Rice later said the final tally was still not known, but that a "Yes" vote would help turn the tide against a Sunni Arab insurgency which has pushed Iraq close to civil war.
Bush praised the large turnout and the calm compared to elections of the interim government in January when more than 40 people were killed in a series of insurgent attacks.
"By all indications the turnout was greater than the turnout from the last January election, which is good news," he said. "And by all indications, the Sunnis participated in greater numbers in this election than the last time," Bush said.
"I am also pleased from the initial indications that the level of violence was considerably less than the last election. That”s a tribute to the Iraqi forces who we”ve trained, as well as coalition forces that worked hard to make sure that democracy can move forward in Iraq," he said.
Electoral Commission chief Hussein al-Hendawi told Reuters turnout was running at 63-64 percent, above the 58 percent seen in January when many Sunnis boycotted the country”s first elections after the fall of Saddam Hussein, who is a Sunni.
Election results indicated a strong "Yes" vote in the Shi”ite Muslim provinces of the south and massive rejection in the Sunni Arab heartlands of the north and west.
Carina Perelli, who leads a team of U.N. advisers working with Iraq officials, stressed that final results were still days away and any early estimates were "impressionistic."
Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlak said he estimated most Sunni Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the population, voted "No" despite a U.S.-brokered deal with one Sunni political party.
Mutlak questioned the validity of any result: "Condoleezza Rice made a statement," he told reporters. "I believe it is a signal to the Electoral Commission to pass the constitution."
Results released by local officials showed a strong "No" vote in Salahaddin province, one of at least three with a Sunni Arab majority that might have helped form a veto. Nearby Anbar province, whose capital is Ramadi, was also likely to reject it.
But after a tight race the "No"s failed to win the needed majority in the northern province of Niniveh around Mosul, effectively ending opponents” hopes of blocking the measure.
Kurdish leaders, who originally inserted the three-province veto clause to protect their own interests, have denied Arab accusations of packing Mosul with Kurdish voters.
Under pressure to withdraw its 150,000 troops from Iraq”s unremitting violence, the United States championed the new charter as a step toward stability despite concern it could spur further tension if Sunnis decide to fight it.
Sunni militants fear the charter hands the country, and especially its oil-rich regions, to the Shi”ite majority and their Kurdish allies who now dominate the government.
Saturday”s vote was largely peaceful as a huge security clampdown prevented all but a handful of ineffectual strikes.
"When I went to the polling center, I found that everything was organized," said a man who gave his name as Samad, standing outside one Baghdad polling place on Sunday.
"No one forced us to write ”Yes” or ”No”. We chose."
If the constitution passes, Iraqis will vote again in December for a new, four-year parliament, a step Washington says will mark its full emergence as a democratic Western ally.
Iraq”s President Jalal Talabani announced that elections, whether they be for a four-year parliament or a new interim assembly, would be held on December 15, the last possible day to hold them according to the rules of the interim constitution.
A "No" vote in the referendum would force Iraq”s feuding factions back to the drawing board.