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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 October 2005, 12:43 GMT 13:43 UK
Iraq referendum: Milestone not destination
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

The majority vote approving Iraq's constitution looks impressive - 78.59% to 21.41% - but the results hide a strong vote against by the Sunni population which was not far from derailing it.

Iraqi election workers carry referendum vote boxes
Iraqis approved a constitution and elections will follow in December

In the end, the Sunnis got a two-thirds negative vote in two provinces - Salahuddin and Anbar - but a majority of just 55% in a third, Nineveh.

They needed the two-thirds in three provinces to block the constitution.

The constitution therefore was carried by the major population groups, the Shias and the Kurds.

They both do well out of the document, getting regional governments with a high degree of autonomy and exclusive access to future oil fields. Current oil production would still be shared among all provinces.

At least this time, many of the Sunnis voted compared to their refusal to do so in the elections to the current Transitional Assembly in January. To that extent they can be said to have been drawn into the political process, though their negative attitude to the constitution on which their future rests does not bode well.

December elections

The result opens the way to elections for a fully constitutional government with a four year term by 15 December, with the government in place by the end of the year.

However, the result does not mean the start of normal politics in Iraq. It is a milestone along the way, not the destination itself.

The former British representative to the Coalition Authority, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, stressed the need for the Sunnis to be brought into first the December elections and then into the new National Assembly. At the moment they are under-represented because they largely boycotted the January elections.

"It is excellent to see Iraq go successfully through this very shaky stage. It is a most remarkable constitution for this region and the results show how keen Iraqis are to get to the next stage," he told the BBC News website.

"But the strong Sunni vote against the agreement shows that much more talking needs to be done. The three communities have got to move forward together. All have agreed to go on discussing how to ensure Sunni participation in the December election and the right representation in the new National Assembly."

Power of insurgency

And of course all the time, threatening what political progress is made, there is the power of the insurgency.

Only yesterday, three huge bombs were planted in the heart of Baghdad outside hotels used by foreign contractors and journalists.

It was a pretty clear demonstration of opposition to the constitutional process.

Whether the politics will have any effect on the rebels remains to be seen. So far, all the various stages which were proclaimed by the coalition and the Iraqi government as decisive have not proved to be so.

The results will be a bit of a morale booster for President George W Bush, who is facing the imminent prospect of seeing US military deaths in Iraq reaching 2000. (Update: This figure has now been reached with his death from wounds of Staff Sergeant George Alexander of Texas).

In itself, such a figure has little significance, anymore than 1999 or 2001. Its importance is that it represents a steady casualty rate which is taking its political toll at home, as well as its human toll on the ground.



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