WASHINGTON - If the referendum on Iraq's draft constitution next month is conducted fairly, it now appears very likely that the document will be defeated by a two-thirds majority in the three Sunni-dominated provinces of Anbar, Salahadeen and Nineveh, plunging Iraq into a new political crisis.
However, one way such a defeat could be averted is by massive vote fraud in the key province of Nineveh. According to an account provided by the US liaison with the local election commission, supported by physical evidence collected by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI), Kurdish officials in Nineveh province tried to carry out just such a ballot-stuffing scheme in last January's election.
The Sunni Arab majority of about 1.7 million in Nineveh - including
Sunni insurgent organizations - appears to be united behind a "no" vote on the constitution. Kurds number only about 200,000 and non-Kurdish, non-Arab minorities another 500,000 to 600,000.
The non-Arab, non-Kurdish minorities - Assyrian Christians, Shabaks, Yezidis and Turkmen - which hold the balance in the province, are overwhelmingly opposed to the constitution.
Heavy-handed control by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of non-Kurdish towns, exercised through Kurdish militia and intelligence presence in non-Kurdish areas, has alienated all four groups. They fear the draft constitution would legitimize Kurdish plans to absorb into Kurdistan the areas of Nineveh where they are the majority, eliminating the limited recognition of status and rights as minorities they now have.
In the January election, the Kurds dealt with the problem of being a relatively small minority in the province by stuffing the ballot boxes, as recounted by Major Anthony Cruz, an US Army reserve civil affairs officer assigned to work with the province's electoral commission.
Cruz, now back in Los Angeles, provided a detailed account of the election in Nineveh to IPS in interviews.
The 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division ("Stryker Brigade") was responsible for getting ballot boxes and ballots to polling places on the Nineveh Plain in January's election. But it relied on battle-hardened Kurdish Pershmerga militiamen to maintain security in the towns and villages, and did not know its way around the area well enough to deliver ballot boxes there without Kurdish help, according to Cruz.
So the brigade agreed to send a US convoy with the voting materials to meet a Kurdish delegation in the Kurdish town of Faida on the border of Kurdistan 50 miles north of Mosul, so that the convoy could be guided to the largely Christian and Shabak towns on the Plain of Nineveh.
When the convoy arrived in Faida the day before the election, however, the promised Kurdish guides never came. Instead, said Cruz, the Kurdish mayor of the town came demanding the ballots for what he called Kurdish towns on the list. The convoy commander wanted to take all the ballots back because the mission had been aborted.
A tense standoff followed, and the convoy commander called Cruz for a decision on what to do with the ballots. He advised the commander to give the mayor enough ballots for four towns, and the convoy returned to Mosul.
On election day, Cruz recalled, the US military tried to find helicopters to carry the ballot materials out to the six remaining district towns on the list, but was able get ballots before the 5pm close of voting to only one town, Bashiqa, which is almost entirely Christian, Shabak and Yezidi.
But according to Cruz, Kurdish militiamen stole the ballot boxes from the polling place, returning them later after obviously tampering with them and offering bribes to the election workers to accept them.
Meanwhile, a much more ambitious vote-fraud scheme was unfolding in Sinjar, a relatively small district town in the west known to be a predominantly Sunni Arab area.
About 12,000 ballots had been sent to Sinjar, but on election day KDP officials in Sinjar requested a number of ballots far in excess of the estimated electorate in the town and surrounding villages, according to Cruz. He recalled that the request was supported by the office of the interim president of Iraq, Sunni Arab Ghazi al-Yawer.
Cruz remembers joking about the "500% voter-participation rate" in Sinjar. Nevertheless, the Stryker Brigade Combat Team complied with the request for the ballots.
Later, the province's Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI) forwarded 38 ballot boxes, 174 plastic sacks and 14 cardboard cartons of ballots that had obviously been tampered with to the national IECI. In some boxes, reams of ballot papers that had not even been folded were visible. In others, boxes had been resealed with red and green duct tape.
When Cruz asked the local IECI director how many of the fraudulent ballots had come from Sinjar, he was told, "all of them".
The average number of ballots per ballot box nationwide was 500, and if each of the 236 boxes and bags of votes from Sinjar had that many ballots, those bags would have contained about 115,000 ballots. The total number of legitimate votes in Nineveh was only 190,000.
The Kurds apparently wanted to bolster their claims on Sinjar and much of the Plain of Nineveh. They also were apparently trying to ensure that non-Kurdish minorities would not have enough votes to gain representation in the interim National Assembly or in the province council.
It did succeed in reducing the vote for the national Assyrian Christian list to exactly 3,346, despite an electorate approaching 100,000. The Iraqi Turkmen Front list garnered only 1,342 votes, despite an electorate that was many times larger.
Judging from the large disparity between the 77,000 legitimate votes for the Kurdish list for the national assembly and the 110,000 legitimate votes for the Kurdish list for province council, the Kurds deliberately shifted a substantial number of votes to Yawer in return for his role in getting the additional ballots need for the vote-stuffing exercise. Yawer was threatened with a minimal vote in the province because of the Sunni boycott.
Although it displayed the boxes and bags of fraudulent ballots, the national IECI downplayed the seriousness of the ballot-stuffing in Nineveh and covered up the Kurdish role in it.
In his media briefing on February 8, IECI spokesman Farid Ayar blamed the ballot fraud on unidentified "militiamen or armed men". According to Cruz, however, the only such incident in the province was in Bashiqa.
Ayar refused to divulge which party would have profited from the fraudulent ballots, telling journalists, "I can't accuse any party, because we don't know."
The KDP obviously miscalculated in thinking that electoral officials in Nineveh could be bribed to turn a blind eye to such crude ballot stuffing. But no damage was done by the failed attempt. The IECI helped by diverting media attention from the Kurds, and US news media never dug into the story behind the mountain of fraudulent ballots exhibited by the commission.
In the constitutional referendum, the Shi'ite government will share the Kurdish interest in doing whatever is necessary to avert the defeat of the constitution in Nineveh. Meanwhile, the US military remains heavily dependent on Kurds in Nineveh. The KDP may well believe that a more sophisticated Kurdish ballot-stuffing scheme will work on October 15.
Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in June.