Washington thinks Iraqis voted "Yes" to their US-brokered constitution and as poll workers counted and recounted piles of ballots across Iraq Sunday, the possibility of a Sunni minority veto receded.
"Most people assume on the ground that it probably has passed," Rice told reporters during a visit to London, hailing the turnout in Sunni Arab areas which had largely boycotted a vote in January to the parliament that wrote the constitution.
Heavy security had brought an unusual lull across the country during the vote but the US military said that five of its soldiers had been killed on Saturday by a bomb attack on their vehicle in the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, where little voting took place because of the clashes.
Overall, turnout was running at 63 to 64 per cent, the head of the Electoral Commission Hussein Hendawi said, and could go higher. It was 58 per cent in January's historic first post-Saddam Hussein election, which most Sunnis shunned.
Hendawi said he had no word on the result but local officials from his agency began to give a picture of a strong "Yes" vote in the Shi'ite Muslim provinces of the south and of massive rejection in the Sunni heartlands of the north and west.
Two of three provinces that would need to return blocking majorities to veto the charter looked set to do just that, officials said. But it seemed unlikely that a third, out of 18, would follow suit, thus probably sparing the constitution.
In schools and government buildings around the country, officials were counting, re-counting and stacking piles of "Yes" and "No" ballots; clear plastic ballot boxes, sealed with red tape, were then loaded into Iraqi army lorries and driven under escort for more counting in Baghdad.
Three soldiers were killed late on Saturday when a roadside bomb hit one such convoy. Three rockets landed in the capital's fortified Green Zone government compound, where officials are doing the final count. They caused no serious damage.
Two big 'No' votes
Shi'ites and their Kurdish allies make up three quarters of the population but the Sunni Arab 20 per cent could veto the charter if three provinces vote "No" by a two-thirds majority.
Two provinces look set to clear that hurdle, including Saddam's home region of Salahaddin around Tikrit and Samarra, where an election official said the "No" side had it by 70 per cent.
In Falluja, where thousands of insurgents battled US troops a year ago, some 90 per cent of registered voters turned out, local election chief Saadullah al-Rawi said, and 99 per cent of them voted "No" to a constitution that Sunni leaders say may tear Iraq into powerful Shi'ite and Kurdish regions.
Overall figures from other cities in Anbar province, where Falluja lies, were not available but turnout was expected to be low due to fighting and fear of fighting during Saturday's vote.
With Anbar and Salahaddin looking likely to return blocking "No" results, eyes were on Mosul, northern capital of Nineveh province and a city divided sharply between Sunni Arabs and Kurds, as well as on mixed Diyala province, east of Baghdad.
However, partial counts indicated there was little chance of a big rejection in Nineveh, a senior government source said.
With the count in from most polling stations, votes in favour were leading by a big margin. Even a solid "No" from remaining areas, most of which were predominantly Arab, would not turn it around, the source said. Kurdish leaders have denied Arab accusations of packing Mosul with Kurdish voters.
Diyala, with a Sunni population of about 40 per cent, seemed unlikely to return a "No" vote big enough to block the charter.
South of the capital, despite some surprisingly strong rejection by nationalist followers of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, pro-constitution votes were clearly ascendant.
In the provinces of Najaf and Kerbala, local officials said the constitution was approved by about 85 per cent.
Election officials said it would take several days for the verdict to become totally clear.
If the constitution passes Iraq will go to the polls again in December to elect a new, four-year parliament in a step that Washington says will mark its full emergence as a sovereign state and new Western ally.
A "No" vote would force the country's feuding factions back to the drawing board, limiting December's election to a new interim assembly and government to redraft the charter.
Despite the uncertainty, Saturday's referendum won praise from the United Nations and the Bush administration.
The White House praised the large turnout and the relative calm compared to the January election of an interim parliament when more than 40 people were killed in more than 100 insurgent attacks, including suicide bombings.
Source: China Daily