Iraq's constitution was adopted by a majority in a fair vote during the Oct. 15 referendum, as Sunni Arab opponents failed to muster enough support to defeat it, election officials said Tuesday. A prominent Sunni politician called the balloting "a farce."
The U.S. military announced the deaths of two Marines in fighting with insurgents last week in Baghdad, bringing to 1,999 the number of American service members killed since the war started in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
The referendum results, announced after a 10-day audit following allegations of fraud, confirmed previous indications that Sunni Arabs failed to produce the two-thirds "no" vote they would have needed in at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces to defeat the constitution.
The charter is considered a major step in Iraq's democratic reforms, clearing the way for the election of a new, full-term parliament on Dec. 15. Such steps are important in any decision about the future withdrawal of U.S.-led forces.
However, some fear the victory, which came despite a large turnout by Sunni Arabs to try to defeat it, could enrage many members of the minority and fuel their support for the country's Sunni-led insurgency.
Carina Perelli, the U.N. elections chief, praised a "very good job" with the audit of results by election officials and said "Iraq should be proud of the commission."
Iraq's top two coalition partners, the United States and Britain, also welcomed the results.
"It's a landmark day in the history of Iraq," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "We congratulate the Iraqi people. ... The political process is continuing to move forward in Iraq, and it is an encouraging sign to see more and more people participating in the process."
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Iraqis "have shown again their determination to defy the terrorists and take part in the democratic process."
Two suicide car bombs exploded Tuesday in the generally peaceful Kurdish province of Sulaimaniyah, killing 12 people. Al-Qaida in Iraq, the country's most feared insurgent group, claimed responsibility in a statement posted on an Islamic Web site.
Iraqi and U.S. forces, meanwhile, refortified a hotel complex where many Western journalists live in central Baghdad after three suicide car bombs exploded a day earlier. Deputy Interior Minister Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali Kamal told The Associated Press that 17 people were killed — mostly hotel guards and passers-by — and 10 wounded in the attack.
Farid Ayar, an official with the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, said the audit had turned up no significant fraud.
But Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni Arab member of the committee that drafted the constitution, called the referendum "a farce" and accused government forces of stealing ballot boxes to reduce the percentage of "no" votes in several mostly Sunni-Arab provinces.
"The people were shocked to find out that their vote is worthless because of the major fraud that takes place in Iraq," he said on Al-Arabiya TV.
Adnan al-Dulaimi, a spokesman for the General Conference for the People of Iraq, a largely Sunni coalition of politicians and tribal leaders, said the audit took so long it left many Sunnis suspicious of possible fraud and manipulation. But he said his group "will work to educate Iraqis and get them to participate in the December election."
The charter was drafted after months of bitter negotiations that ended with some Sunni leaders agreeing to support it with provisions that future changes were possible.
The militants kept up their deadly attacks Tuesday.
A suicide car bomb exploded near a regional government ministry, which houses Kurdish forces known as peshmerga, on the outskirts of the predominantly Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, killing 12 people, Lt. Col. Taha Redha, a peshmerga official, said.
About 45 minutes earlier, a suicide car bomb rammed into a seven-car convoy carrying Mullah Bakhtiyar, a senior Kurdish official in President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, said police Col. Najim al-Din Qader. Bakhtiyar was not hurt, but two of the convoy's guards were wounded.
Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles northeast of Baghdad, is where the PUK party is based, and is considered one of the most peaceful areas of Iraq.
The U.S. military said the two Marines were killed by a roadside bomb during fighting with insurgents on Friday near the village of Amiriyah, 25 miles west of Baghdad.
A video posted on an Islamic extremist Web site showed a U.S. soldier being shot in Iraq while guarding an armored vehicle. Although the militant Islamic Army in Iraq said one of its snipers killed the soldier in Baghdad on Monday, it was not immediately possible to verify the statement and it was unclear if the soldier had died.
As the U.S. military death toll in the Iraq war nears the landmark total of 2,000, the Iraqi death toll is unknown, but estimates range much higher.
Iraq Body Count, a British research group that compiles its figures from reports by the major news agencies and British and U.S. newspapers, has said that as many as 30,051 Iraqis have been killed since the start of the war. Other estimates range as high as 100,000.
U.S. and coalition authorities say they have not kept a count of such deaths, and Iraqi government accounting has proven to be haphazard.
Crews repaired a breach in the blast walls around the Palestine and Sheraton hotels that were struck Monday. One of the bombs had blown a hole in the wall, enabling a cement truck packed with explosives to enter the compound and explode, causing considerable damage to the Palestine, which houses offices of the AP, Fox News and other media organizations.
The vote on the constitution was 78.59 percent in favor of ratification and 21.41 percent against, the commission said. The charter required a simple majority nationwide with the provision that if two-thirds of the voters in any three provinces rejected it, the constitution would be defeated.
Italy, a staunch U.S. ally in Iraq, welcomed the results and said it would keep supporting the political process in the country.
"Today marks the beginning of a new era of dialogue and reconciliation among all Iraqi people, beyond ethnic and religious differences, and shows that politics has defeated the violence of terror," said Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini.
The election commission said that the predominantly Sunni province of Ninevah had produced a "no" vote of only 55 percent. Only two other mostly Sunni provinces — Salahuddin and Anbar — had voted no by two-thirds or more.
Ninevah had been a focus of fraud allegations since preliminary results had showed a large majority of voters had approved the constitution, despite a large Sunni Arab population there.
Many Kurds and majority Shiites strongly support the constitution, but Sunni Arabs fear it will create two virtually autonomous and oil-rich mini-states of Kurds in the north and Sunnis in the south, while leaving many Sunnis isolated in poor central and western regions with a weak central government in Baghdad.
Some 9.8 million Iraqis cast ballots, or 63 percent of registered voters. About 60 percent turned out for January's legislative vote, which was boycotted by many Sunni Arabs.