The early vote totals from Nineveh province, which suggested an overwhelming majority in favor of Iraq's draft constitution that assured its passage by national referendum, now appear to have been highly misleading.
The final official figures for the province, obtained by IPS from a U.S. official in Mosul, actually have the constitution being rejected by a fairly wide margin, but less than the two-thirds majority required to defeat it outright.
Both the initial figures and the new vote totals raise serious questions about the credibility of the reported results in Nineveh. A leading Sunni political figure has already charged that the Nineveh vote totals have been altered.
According to the widely cited preliminary figures announced by the spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI) in Nineveh, 326,000 people voted for the constitution and 90,000 against. Those figures were said to be based on results from more than 90 percent of the 300 polling stations in the province.
Relying on those "unofficial" figures, the media reported that the constitution appeared to have been passed – on the assumption that the Sunnis had failed to muster the necessary two-thirds "no" vote in Nineveh. No further results have been released by the IECI since then, and the final tally from the national referendum is not expected until Friday at the earliest.
However, according to the U.S. military liaison with the IECI in Nineveh, Maj. Jeffrey Houston, the final totals for the province were 424,491 "no" votes and 353,348 "yes" votes. This means that the earlier figures actually represented only 54 percent of the official vote total – not 90 percent, as the media had been led to believe. And the votes which had not been revealed earlier went against the constitution by a ratio more than 12 to 1.
These ballots could only have come from the Sunni sections of Mosul, a city of 1.7 million people. Although the votes from polling centers in those densely populated urban areas would take longer to count than those from more sparsely populated towns and cities outside Mosul, they should not have taken much longer than those for the Kurdish sections of Mosul.
Thus there seems to be no logistical reason for failing to announce the results for the 340,000 votes that went overwhelmingly against the constitution. Rather, the evidence suggests that it was a deliberate effort to mislead the media by Kurdish and Shi'ite political leaders who were intent on ensuring that the constitution would pass.
They knew that all eyes would be on Nineveh as the province where the referendum would be decided. By issuing figures that appeared to show that the vote in Nineveh was a runaway victory for the constitution, they not only shaped the main story line in the media that the constitution had already passed, but effectively discouraged any further media curiosity about the vote in that province.
The final figures revealed by the U.S. military liaison with the IECI suggest a voter turnout in Nineveh that strains credibility. On a day when Sunni turnout reached 88 percent in Salahuddin province and 90 percent in Fallujah, a total of only 778,000 votes – about 60 percent of the eligible voters – in Nineveh appears anomalous. Even if the turnout in the province had only been 70 percent, the total would have been 930,000.
The final vote totals suggest that the Sunnis, who clearly voted with near unanimity against the constitution, are a minority in the province. It is generally acknowledged that Sunnis constitute a hefty majority of the population of Nineveh, although Kurdish leaders have never conceded that fact.
A total of 350,000 votes for the constitution in the province is questionable based on the area's ethnic-religious composition. The final vote breakdown for the January election reveals that the Kurds and Shiites in Nineveh had mustered a combined total of only 130,000 votes for Kurdish and Shi'ite candidates, despite high rates of turnout for both groups.
To have amassed 350,000 votes for the constitution, they would have had to obtain overwhelming support from the non-Kurdish, non-Arab minorities in the province.
According to official census data, before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Assyrian Christians and Sunni Arabs accounted 46 percent of the more than 350,000 people on the Nineveh plain. Most of the others are Shabaks and Yezidis. Kurds represented just 6 percent of the population.
But the Kurds have asserted political control over the towns and villages of the plains, with a heavy Kurdish paramilitary and Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) presence. That Kurdish presence provoked widespread opposition and some public protests among non-Kurdish communities on the plains, especially Christians and Shabaks.
Assyrian Christians are particularly afraid the constitution's article 135, which divides the Christian community into Chaldeans and Assyrians, will be used by Kurds to expropriate their lands and villages in North Iraq.
Michael Youash, director of the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project in Washington, has spoken with Assyrian Christian leaders in two district towns, Bakhdeda and BarTilla, on the Nineveh plain where Christians represent roughly half the combined total population of more than 100,000 people.
He says Assyrian Christian political organizations mounted big demonstrations against the constitution in both towns, and that their local leaders are sure that very high percentages in both towns voted against the constitution.
In response to an e-mail query, Maj. Houston, the U.S. military liaison with the IECI, said, "It was my understanding that the Christian communities would be opposed to the constitution," but he dismissed the suspicions of vote fraud in the province.
Saleh al-Mutlek, one of the Sunni negotiators on the constitution last summer and now a leading opponent of the constitution, told reporters, "There is a scheme to alter the results" of the vote. He alleged that members of the Iraqi National Guard had seized ballot boxes from a polling station in Mosul and transferred them to a governorate office controlled by Kurds.
A former U.S. military liaison with the Nineveh province IECI has confirmed a similar incident of seizure of ballot boxes from a polling station during the January elections.
According to Maj. Anthony Cruz, Kurdish militiamen tried to bribe local electoral commission staff to accept ballots that had obviously been tampered with. Cruz also confirmed a much larger ballot-stuffing scheme by Kurdish officials in the province, as reported by IPS in September.
On Monday, the Electoral Commission announced that it would conduct an audit to examine the high "yes" vote, but it is not clear that it will include the results in Nineveh.