BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP – U.S. troops and warplanes killed 20 insurgents Saturday while destroying safehouses for foreign militants near the Syrian border, and four more American military deaths edged the war”s U.S. death toll closer to 2,000.
Iraqi election officials, meanwhile, said no significant fraud had been detected in last weekend”s constitutional referendum as they released partial results. Officials indicated the final count would not come for at least a few more days.
The day”s heaviest fighting came when U.S.-led forces raided five houses suspected of sheltering foreign fighters in Husaybah, a town near Iraq”s border with Syria, the military said. The troops reportedly killed 20 insurgents and captured one.
The raiders found two caches of small arms, ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds and bomb-making materials, the military said. Troops set off a car bomb found near one of the buildings, and the Air Force then used precision-guided munitions to destroy the houses.
Seven Iraqis, including two civilians, were reported killed in drive-by shootings and bombings Saturday. But in the week since the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum there have been none of the major suicide attacks that militants had been staging.
Twenty-three U.S. military personnel have been reported dead over the week, bringing the total of American dead since the war began in March 2003 to 1,996, according to an Associated Press Count. No agency keeps a comprehensive count of Iraqi deaths from violence, but an AP count found more than 3,700 killed since April 28, when the first elected government took power.
The latest U.S. deaths reported by the military included a Marine killed by an explosion near the western town of Haqlaniyah on Friday, the final day of an offensive that began Oct. 4. After the blast, Marines fought with insurgents, killing four and destroying a bunker with an unknown number of gunmen inside, the military said.
Two more Marines were killed by a bomb during fighting near Amiriyah, 25 miles west of Baghdad, the military said. A U.S. Army soldier died in central Baghdad on Thursday of a "non-hostile gunshot."
Iraqis will have to wait until at least Monday to learn the final outcome of the constitutional referendum.
Election officials were still examining unusually high "yes" votes in four provinces, including Ninevah province, which is key to whether the charter is adopted or rejected. But the Electoral Commission said there were no signs of widespread fraud.
"We did not find any significant violations that would have any effect on the final results of the referendum," commission member Safwat Rashid said at a news conference in Baghdad.
Sunni Arab leaders have made accusations of fraud in key regions. But Rashid said no major complaints had been lodged through the commission”s system for filing grievances and dismissed any other claims as "baseless."
Public faith in the final numbers is crucial after a referendum that sharply divided Iraqis. The Shiite Muslim majority and the large Kurdish minority strongly supported the constitution because it would give them considerable autonomy in their oil-rich heartlands. Sunni Arabs were largely opposed, arguing the charter would tear Iraq apart.
Sunni Arabs turned out in large numbers in a bid to defeat the constitution, aiming to get a two-thirds "no" vote in three of Iraq”s 18 provinces — a result that would veto a nationwide majority "yes."
But the partial figures from 13 provinces released by the commission Saturday suggested they faced a tough time making that goal. The results were based on half the votes cast in each of the 13 provinces — about 20 percent of the ballot boxes nationwide — and gave strong "yes" votes in nine of the provinces and said three others had narrower "yes" majorities.
Only one, the Sunni Arab province of Salahuddin north of Baghdad, surpassed a two-thirds rejection of the constitution, marking an 81 percent "no" vote, according to the partial results.
Opponents also likely reached that threshold in Anbar province, which is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab, though the commission released no results from there. For the third, they were looking to either Ninevah or Diyala. But the partial returns said Diyala”s vote was close to evenly split, and previous reports put Ninevah far from a two-thirds "no" vote.
Defense lawyers in the trial of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein and seven former officials in his Sunni Arab-dominated regime rejected protection offered by Iraq”s Interior Ministry after the kidnap-slaying of a colleague Thursday, the day after the trial”s opening session.
Khamees Hamid al-Ubaidi, one of Saddam”s attorneys, said the 12 remaining defense lawyers rejected Interior Ministry guards "because of our lack of trust in the Iraqi security agencies."
"Everyone knows there are elements in the Interior Ministry that assassinate Iraqis," he said, referring to Sunni Arab suspicions about the Shiite-led government.
Al-Ubaidi said the lawyers were in contact with American officials about getting protection. A U.S. military spokesman said he was not aware of a request for U.S. protection, and U.S. Embassy officials could not be reached for comment.
Also Saturday, Britain”s Sunday Telegraph reported that an opinion poll shows 45 percent of Iraqis believe attacks against American and British troops are justified and fewer than one percent believe U.S.-led coalition forces have helped improve the country”s security situation.
The study was commissioned by Britain”s Ministry of Defense and conducted by an Iraqi university research team, newspaper reported. The paper didn”t say how many people were questioned or give a margin of error.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defense had no immediate comment on the report.