BAGHDAD — Iraq's controversial draft constitution appeared headed toward approval in a nationwide referendum, according to official comments and unofficial early figures, as ballot counting continued Sunday.
With results trickling in to the capital from the provinces, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking on an NBC political affairs show, hailed the high voter turnout, which Iraqi officials said was 61% nationwide. She cited "early reports from the ground" indicating that the constitution would win approval, though she stressed that it was too early to be sure of the result.
Officials in Nineveh province, meanwhile, said a preliminary count of Saturday's vote indicated that the measure would pass in their area, which was widely seen as a must-win battleground for the mainly Sunni Muslim Arab opponents of the charter.
"All indications we are getting, even from those provinces where the vote may swing, are encouraging and positive as for a yes vote for this constitution," Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told CNN.
President Bush, speaking at the White House on Sunday after a weekend at Camp David, praised the election as a step toward stability.
"Democracies are peaceful countries," he said. "The vote today in Iraq stands in stark contrast to the attitudes and philosophy and strategy of Al Qaeda and its terrorist friends and killers."
Independent analysts warned, however, that a high turnout in the referendum, in which Iraqis were divided along sectarian and ethnic lines, would not necessarily presage the end of the insurgency and the ongoing violence that have cost the lives of thousands of Iraqis and taken a high toll on American troops, including five U.S. soldiers and a Marine killed in western Iraq on Saturday.
"The road to a political solution is still a long one," said Nathan Brown, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "Plenty of future Confederate leaders participated in the American presidential election of 1860."
The constitution was widely supported by the nation's Shiite Muslims and ethnic Kurds, who together dominate the interim government elected in January. But opposition was widespread and vehement among the nation's Sunni Arabs, who fear its provisions for a federalist system with a weaker central government will leave their region isolated from power and shortchanged on national resources.
Opponents of the constitution needed two-thirds no votes in three of Iraq's 18 provinces to scuttle the draft. All eyes were focused on two ethnically and religiously mixed provinces, Nineveh and Diyala, which have large populations of Sunni Arabs.
Several officials in Nineveh said opponents of the draft failed to come up with enough votes to defeat it in the province, which includes the mixed cities of Mosul and Tall Afar. According to officials tallying initial results, 322,000 voters in the province voted yes compared with 90,000 who voted no, with more than half the ballots counted.
The officials included a Kurd loyal to the Kurdistan Democratic Party, a member of Iraq's Shabak minority and an election observer.
An official of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq confirmed the numbers. All officials requested anonymity because the results have not been finalized and they are not authorized to speak publicly.
Khasro Goran, the Kurdish deputy governor of Nineveh, said that about 40% of the province's 1.3 million eligible voters cast ballots and 70% of those backed the constitution. U.S. military officials in the province, however, estimated the turnout at between 50% and 60%.
Officials said that results from two dozen of the province's 300 election centers had yet to be tallied. Many of them are in the Sunni Arab western side of Mosul.
Preliminary results from Diyala province were not available Sunday. However, Dhahir Khalil, deputy chairman of the provincial electoral commission, said turnout in Diyala totaled 65% of 708,000 eligible voters.
If Shiites and Kurds turned out in high numbers to support the charter, opponents of the draft probably are headed for defeat in the province. Shiites constitute at least a third of the population and are joined by 175,000 Kurds living in the city of Khanaqin, which was attached to the province by then-President Saddam Hussein to dilute Kurdish power.
The former Baghdad regime's decision decades ago to attach Kurdish cities to Arab majority provinces may come back to haunt Sunni Arabs in Salahuddin province as well.
There too, a large turnout of Shiites in cities such as Balad and Dujayl and Kurds in towns such as Tuz Khurmatu could keep Sunni Arabs from getting the two-thirds no votes they would need to defeat the constitution.
Official tallies of turnout figures from the largely Shiite south also suggested a victory for the constitution. Carina Perelli, the United Nations' top election official, cited turnout figures of between 54% and 63% in eight Shiite provinces, where most people support the constitution.