PARTIAL results from the Iraqi referendum suggest that voters have said 'yes' to the new constitution.
Initial returns indicate that just two provinces, the overwhelmingly Sunni Salahuddin and Anbar areas, have rejected the constitution, but that in other areas which were narrowly Sunni, voters have approved the deal.
The Kurdish and Shia areas are widely expected to have voted massively in favour.
Results are expected later this week, but a team of international and Iraqi election experts have pored over initial results from one of the most crucial provinces, Ninevah, trying to determine if there were irregularities in an unexpectedly high number of 'yes' votes.
Electoral Commission officials, however, insisted that no fraud had been uncovered and no major complaints had been lodged through its system for filing grievances.
Safwat Rashid, a member of the commission, said: "We did not find any significant violations that would have any effect on the final results of the referendum."
Commission member Adel al-Lami announced partial results from 13 provinces based on half the votes cast in each. They showed strong 'yes' votes above 90% in seven southern Shi'ite provinces. Two Kurdish provinces in the north, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk, had 'yes' votes of 98.95% and 99.11% respectively.
In Salahuddin, 81.15% voted 'no', a level expected to remain about the same.
The partial results indicated 'yes' votes of 78% in Baghdad, 51% in Diyala, and 62% in Tamim. But those provinces have highly mixed populations, so the other half of the vote there could change the final figures, depending on whether Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurd regions remain to be counted.
With a majority of Iraqis expected to approve the constitution, its Sunni Arab opponents needed to get a two-thirds 'no' vote in any three provinces. It appeared to have received it in Salahuddin and Anbar.
With Diyala looking to have narrowly voted 'yes', the constitution's opponents need Ninevah, which has a slight Sunni Arab majority but large Shi'ite and Kurdish communities. Initial results from there showed a 70% 'yes' vote but later estimates put it at a closer 55% 'yes'.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has promised to step up security for defence lawyers in Saddam Hussein's trial after one was kidnapped and killed by men wearing security forces' uniforms. But the attorneys rejected an offer of Iraqi guards, because of a lack of trust in the country's interior ministry.
The murder of Saadoun al-Janabi scared the 12 remaining lawyers who appeared at the first session of Saddam's trial last Wednesday, representing the ousted dictator and seven officials from his Ba'athist regime.
"We have decided to take some measures to protect the lawyers," deputy interior minister General Hussein Ali Kamal said yesterday.
But one of Saddam's two lawyers said the entire defence on Friday night had rejected an offer of guards from the Iraqi interior ministry.
Meanwhile, the freed kidnap victim Rory Carroll was expected to return home to Dublin this weekend for an emotional family reunion.
Gunmen snatched the Guardian journalist from a Baghdad suburb last Wednesday but he was released unharmed on Thursday night after 36 hours in captivity.
Carroll's father Joe said he expected his 33-year-old son to visit his Blackrock home to see his mother Kathy and sister Karina.