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BAGHDAD, Oct 25: Iraqi voters ratified a new US-backed constitution despite bitter opposition in Sunni areas, results showed on Tuesday. Iraq’s electoral commission, giving final results from the Oct 15 referendum, said 79 per cent of voters backed the constitution against 21 per cent opposed in a poll split largely along sectarian and ethnic lines.

Several Shia and Kurdish regions voted between 95 and 99 per cent ‘Yes’; in Sunni-dominated Anbar 97 per cent said ‘No’.

Prominent Sunni leaders rejected the referendum as a fraud, warning it could fuel militancy and discourage Sunnis from participating in future elections.

Iraqi and UN election officials said the vote, which was largely peaceful despite widespread fears of a surge in guerrilla attacks, was fair.

The referendum’s final results showed that only two of the country’s 18 provinces, the guerilla stronghold of Anbar in the west and Saddam Hussein’s home region of Salahaddin in the north, had mustered a ‘No’ vote of at least two-thirds — one short of the three provinces necessary to veto the measure.

The northern province of Nineveh, thought to represent a third possible ‘No’ due to its large population of Sunnis, ended up with only 55 per cent of voters rejecting the charter.

Commission spokesman Farid Ayar rejected suggestions that results had been tampered with. “We didn’t invent these figures. It took us a long time to get them,” he told a news conference.

DECEMBER ELECTIONS: Passage of the constitution is a boost for Washington and the Shia- and Kurdish-led government in Baghdad, paving the way for a parliamentary election on Dec 15 that both hope will mark Iraq’s emergence as a stable, federal democracy.

Politicians are racing to form the alliances that will shape the new parliament before a Friday deadline for parties and electoral coalitions to register for the elections.

“Politics is linked directly to security on the ground. The situation can only get worse now,” Hussein al Falluji, part of a Sunni team that negotiated the constitution, said, describing the results as a fraud.

Another Sunni politician, Saleh Mutlaq, said the vote could backfire on government efforts to defuse the resistance by persuading Sunnis they had no role in the political process.

A top UN election specialist, Carina Perelli, said she was confident the election had not been fixed. “The result is accurate. It has been checked according to the processes that we all follow when we have elections.”

But UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s representative in Baghdad, Ashraf Qazi, said the poll once again demonstrated how dangerously polarized Iraq had become.

Both the United States and Britain have sought to ease Sunni fears by emphasizing that the constitution can be amended after a new parliament is elected — an enticement for Sunni groups to field candidates and make their voices heard. —Reuters