Iraqi election officials are investigating what appears to be unusually high numbers of "yes" votes from Saturday's constitutional referendum, but say the audit does not mean there were voting irregularities. However, the review is likely to delay the announcement of final results, and has raised questions among the Sunni Arab minority - many of whom opposed the constitution.
As ballots from Saturday's referendum continue to be counted, election officials announced they need to conduct an audit after an unusually high number of "yes" votes were reported in most of Iraq's 18 provinces. News agencies quote officials as saying that in some provinces 99 percent of the ballots were cast in favor of the constitution, a development that has led the election commission to recheck the results.
The move has raised questions of possible irregularities. The American network, ABC News, broadcast what appears to be voters casting or marking multiple ballots, and a local election worker handing out more than one ballot to an individual voter. The report said these instances happened in a Sunni area.
In Washington, U.S. officials played down any speculation of fraud - saying the election audit is a normal procedure.
James Jeffrey is the State Department's Coordinator for Iraq says, “I think they're examining or looking into this issue, which is normal whenever you have a threshold of more than 90 percent. That's normal but it's also not unexpected and it's also not just in Shia or Kurdish areas. Our point is let’s look into it and see what happens. The rest of these flow from that, and I think that if there are real allegations they'll have to be dealt with. If there aren't real allegations, I don't think they'll have an impact on either the Sunni integration or the rest of the political process."
The constitution will fail if two-thirds of the voters in at least three provinces rejected the document. Initial returns indicated a majority in two Sunni dominated provinces voted "no", but that the charter did pass in two other Sunni provinces and in the Shia and Kurdish parts of the country.
Sunnis, who once ran Iraq, largely oppose the charter, fearing its provisions allowing for autonomous regions could lead to the breakup of Iraq. They worry this will leave Iraq's oil revenues under control of the majority Shi'ites and Kurds.
Middle East expert Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says if Sunni concerns are to be addressed, there must be greater Sunni participation in the political process. "There has to be a way for the broad variety of Sunni interests to be taken care of through some sort of representative political grouping which Sunnis feel belongs to them. I'm not sure how close we are to seeing even the beginnings of such a grouping emerging but if it's going to work I think that sort of grouping is going to have to emerge."
Iraq's future depends on the outcome of Saturday's vote. If the constitution is passed it will pave the way for the election of a permanent government in December. Iraqi and U.S. officials hope the election will lead to greater Sunni participation in Iraq's political life, and undercut the insurgency which is largely backed by Sunnis.