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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 October 2005, 00:15 GMT 01:15 UK
Referendum crisis looms in Iraq
By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Baghdad

Saddam Hussein defiantly speaks to the presiding judge as his trial begins
The former Iraqi leader questioned the validity of his trial in court
This has been a comparatively peaceful week in Iraq but it has certainly been eventful.

The much anticipated trial of Saddam Hussein opened on Wednesday, with the former ruler grandstanding before the world's media in a way which was supposed to have been impossible.

He managed to call into question the legitimacy of the court while demonstrating that the apparently broken man pulled from a hole in the ground by US troops almost two years ago was back with a vengeance.

The trial was swiftly adjourned to give the defence more time to prepare their case, but perhaps also to give the judges a chance to re-group and consider how they can keep control of proceedings.

They also need to work out how the tribunal can escape the accusations made by international human rights organisations that it is fundamentally flawed.

For example the judges only have to be "satisfied" of the guilt of the defendants rather than having it established "beyond reasonable doubt".

There are also deep concerns over the killing of one of the defence lawyers involved in the tribunal the day after it started.

Referendum probe

But all this could be overshadowed by a looming crisis over the results of the referendum on the new constitution.

The 15 October vote passed off mostly peacefully, prompting euphoric statements from Washington. The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, quickly announced that the constitution had probably been approved.

Iraqi referendum workers count votes in Baquba
Election officials are investigating alleged irregularities in the vote counts
But it seems Ms Rice was speaking way too soon, provoking anger among both Iraqi and Western officials working in the country.

The election commission says it is still not able to announce even the provisional results of the referendum despite promising to do so by 20 October.

Instead it has sent special teams out to five provinces to check what it says are "unusual" results and turnout figures.

The provinces under investigation include three dominated by the minority Sunni community.

The constitution can be blocked if three provinces vote against it with a majority of at least two-thirds in each.

Instead of uniting the country, the draft constitution has proved to be another divisive issue with the minority Sunnis largely opposed to it and the majority Shia and the Kurds mostly supporting it.

Difficult choices

It seems Sunni voters did turn out in large numbers and two provinces - Al Anbar and Salahaddin - are widely believed to have rejected the constitution.

The result from a third Sunni-dominated province, Nineveh, could therefore determine the fate of the constitution.

In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, election officials in the provincial capital, Mosul, were quoted by an international news agency as saying the "Yes" vote had won by a huge majority.

This left most impartial observers perplexed and perturbed.

One Western journalist who had been based there during the referendum described it as "totally ridiculous".

Now the word on the street seems to be that the majority in fact voted "No", but it is not clear if it was by two-thirds or if it fell short of this critical threshold.

Nineveh is one of the provinces under investigation by election officials. They are looking at voting procedures, the ballot boxes and the ballot papers to ensure there were no mistakes or fraud.

The pressure on the election commission to call the correct result from the referendum is intense.

A mistake could jeopardise the country's future.

Getting the Sunnis to vote was regarded as a major step forward, drawing them into the political process and away from the insurgents who are mostly from the Sunni minority.

But if they feel cheated over the result it could backfire disastrously, leaving them disillusioned with politics and potentially throwing them into the arms of the militants.

On the other hand, the Shia and Kurds have long assumed their overwhelming numbers will ensure the constitution is easily approved.

For it to be rejected now would therefore come as a shock.

And if there have been irregularities in Nineveh or any of the other provinces under investigation, the choices facing the election commission are not easy.

They include organising a re-run of voting in the affected province or even holding another nationwide referendum.

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