BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP -U.S. warplanes and helicopters bombed two villages near the restive city of Ramadi, killing an estimated 70 militants, the military said Monday, though witnesses said at least 39 of the dead were civilians.
The violence on Sunday occurred a day after Iraq voted on — and apparently passed — a landmark constitution that many Sunnis opposed. As officials continued to count the millions of paper ballots Monday, the constitution seemed assured of passage after initial results showed minority Sunnis had fallen short in an effort to veto it.
A foreign election observer confirmed that apparent outcome in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday. He spoke on condition of anonymity, saying the Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission would announce the official results, which could be released Wednesday.
The acceptance of the constitution would be a major step in the attempt to establish a democratic government that could lead to the withdrawal of U.S. troops. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned Sunday that violence will continue in Iraq, even if the new constitution is adopted. She said support for the insurgency would eventually wane as the country moves toward democracy.
On referendum day, a roadside bomb killed five U.S. soldiers in a vehicle in the Al-Bu Ubaid village on the eastern outskirts of Ramadi. On Sunday, a group of about two dozen Iraqis gathered around the wreckage; they were hit by U.S. airstrikes, the military and witnesses said.
The military said in a statement that the crowd was setting another roadside bomb when F-15 warplanes hit them, killing around 20 people, described by the military as "terrorists."
But several witnesses and one local leader said they were civilians who had gathered to gawk at and take pieces of the wreckage, as often occurs after an American vehicle is hit.
A tribal leader, Chiad Saad, said the airstrike killed 25 civilians, and several other witnesses said the same thing, though they refused to give their names out of fear for their safety.
The other deaths occurred in the nearby village of Al-Bu Faraj.
The military said a group of gunmen opened fire on a Cobra attack helicopter that had spotted their position. The Cobra returned fire, killing around 10. The men ran into a nearby house, where gunmen were seen unloading weapons when an F/A-18 warplane struck the building with a bomb, killing 40 insurgents, the military said.
Witnesses said at least 14 of the dead were civilians. First, one man was wounded in an airstrike, and when he was brought into a nearby building, warplanes struck it, said the witnesses, who refused to give their names overs concerns about their safety.
An Associated Press stringer later saw the 14 bodies and the damaged building. He said residents, many of them crying, removed the bodies and buried them, some in wooden coffins, others simply wrapped in white cloth. One of the bodies was that of a boy who appeared to be between the ages of 10 and 15, the stringer said.
Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, is a stronghold for Sunni insurgents, and few people cast ballots there during Saturday”s referendum — either out of fear of militants” reprisals or out of rejection of the new constitution.
A U.S. Marine was also killed by a bomb Saturday in the town of Saqlawiyah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, the military said. The weekend”s U.S. military fatalities brought to at least 1,976 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the war began in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
In the referendum, the constitution seemed assured of passage after initial results showed minority Sunnis had fallen short in an effort to veto it at the polls.
Opponents failed to secure the necessary two-thirds "no" vote in any three of Iraqi”s 18 provinces, according to counts that local officials provided to The Associated Press. In the crucial central provinces with mixed ethnic and religious populations, enough Shiites and Kurds voted to stymie the Sunni bid to reject the constitution.
The Sunni "no" campaign appeared to have made the two-thirds threshold in Anbar province, the vast western Sunni heartland where Ramadi is the capital, and in Salahuddin, where Sunnis hold a large majority and as many as 90 percent of voters cast ballots. But in two other provinces where Sunni Arabs have only slim majorities — Ninevah and Diyala — the "yes" vote apparently won out.
Sunni leaders responded angrily, some of them saying they suspected fraud and accusing American officials and the Shiite parties that dominate the government.
If the constitution indeed passed, the first full-term parliament since Saddam Hussein”s fall in 2003 will install a new government by Dec. 31 following Dec. 15 elections. If the charter failed, the parliament will be temporary, tasked with drawing up a new draft constitution.
But the outcome could further divide the nation. Many Sunnis fear the new decentralized government will deprive them of their fair share in the country”s vast oil wealth by creating virtually independent mini-states of Kurds in the north and minority Shiites in the south, while leaving Sunnis isolated in central and western Iraq.
Large numbers of Sunnis voted "no," and some of their leaders were already rejecting the apparent result. While a strong Sunni turnout in Saturday”s referendum suggested a desire among many to participate in Iraq”s new political system, there were fears that anger at being ruled under a constitution they oppose could push some into supporting the Sunni-led insurgency.
"If the constitution was passed, the attacks will definitely rise against the occupation forces, and the security situation is going to be worse," said Sheik Abdul-Salam al-Kubaisi, a prominent cleric with the influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, which government officials accuse of links to the insurgency.
The constitution is a crucial step in Iraq”s transition to democracy after two decades of dictatorship under Saddam. Washington was hoping it would pass so Iraqis can form a legitimate, representative government, tame the insurgency and enable the 150,000 U.S. troops to begin withdrawing.
Provinces in the south, where most of Iraq”s Shiite majority are concentrated, racked up big "yes" votes — over 90 percent in favor in most places. Results were not yet available from Kurdistan, but the Kurdish community strongly supports the charter.
Still, despite a call by their top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to support the charter, Shiite participation in the south was far lower than in parliamentary elections in January, when huge numbers of Shiite voters — more than 80 percent — celebrated as they went to the polls to mark their new dominance of the country.
Between 54 and 58 percent of voters showed up Saturday in most parts of the south, according to U.N. elections chief Carina Perelli. The drop could reflect a belief that the constitution”s victory was a sure thing or a vein of discontent among Shiites.
The Sunni turnout in some areas Saturday stood in contrast to January”s elections, which they boycotted because they believed the political process was giving unfair power to the Shiite majority. That move left them with a minuscule presence in parliament.