Iraqi election officials confirmed on 25 October the approval of the draft constitution after releasing final results from the mid-October referendum. Of the 9.8 million voters, 78 per cent approved the document, on a turnout of 63 per cent. The positive vote now paves the way for new parliamentary elections to be held on 15 December. But although fears that three out of Iraq’s 18 provinces would reject the constitution by the two-thirds required did not materialise, it is clear that the challenge ahead remains as tough as ever.

As news of the results trickled out across the country, government officials and businessmen alike felt a new sense of urgency as the relatively stable Kurdish north was rocked by its first bombings since 60 people were killed in Irbil last May. Nine people were killed in Sulaimaniyah as a series of blasts ripped through the city. ‘It is tragic, but we will have to wait and see how it impacts on business in the Kurdish areas,’ a Kurdish Regional Government spokesperson told MEED on 25 October. The north has been billed over the last few months as the new gateway to Iraq, with investors encouraged to look towards the area to give extra impetus to the reconstruction effort.

While some of that impetus may now be lost, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to the cause on 26 October.

‘[Our objectives in 2006 are] to break the back of the insurgency so that Iraqis can finish it off without large-scale military help from the US; keep Iraq from becoming a safe haven from which Islamic extremists can terrorise the region or the world; and turn the corner financially and economically, so there is a sense [in Iraq] of hope and a visible path toward self-reliance.’

However, the last point may well be the most contentious following mounting calls at home for Washington to scale down its commercial and military operations in Iraq. The US’ special inspector-general for Iraq, Stuart Bowen, pointed out on 19 October that the dramatic increase in security spending and a shift in reconstruction priorities had created a reconstruction gap with many projects planned by the US still on the drawing board.

‘The US is still trying to formulate a clear plan,’ says a senior Iraqi diplomat. ‘At the moment nobody really knows who is responsible for the money or where it is. The ministries are shuffling for position in time forthe elections and security remains the key question mark.’