- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 17, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraqis began counting votes yesterday, with electoral officials and Western diplomats expressing confidence that reports of fraud would not undermine overall results of Thursday’s record-high vote for a new national assembly and government.

Local television channels also began announcing preliminary outcomes, despite calls from electoral officials to hold off until the official results are announced at the end of the month.

Baghdad TV reported that Sunni alliance leader Adnan al-Dulaimi had won 40 percent of the votes in Baghdad, including the strong Shi’ite area of Sadr City. They did not give any other details.

But in one mixed neighborhood, the local press said that Mr. al-Dulaimi, secular Shi’ite Iyad Allawi, who had been expected to take the city, and the religious Shi’ite bloc were all close to each other. Ahmad Chalabi, once a Pentagon favorite, brought up the rear, the television reported.

Mr. al-Dulaimi was quoted yesterday as saying that his party would be open to an alliance with secular Shi’ites and Kurds to form a coalition government to run the country.

U.S. officials view Mr. al-Dulaimi as a possible intermediary who could persuade some Sunni-led insurgent groups in restive Anbar province to join the political process.

One television channel reported that the religious Shi’ite bloc led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, hard-line cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and current Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari had won the vast majority of votes in the southern Shi’ite cities of Najaf, Basra and Karbala.

The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI) moved quickly to address the charges of election violations.

“We will deal with these complaints legally, but we need proof. Without that, we can’t do anything about it,” IECI official Azzedine al-Mohamedi told reporters.

Poll workers and voters described a huge turnout for Thursday’s vote, significantly higher than the Oct. 15 referendum.

Up to 70 percent of Iraq’s 15 million registered voters are thought to have cast ballots, the Associated Press reported.

U.S. military analysts said there had been a “dramatic reduction” in election day violence compared with the January elections.

“There absolutely were irregularities from north to south,” said a Western official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

But, he added, these were “not so serious as to dramatically affect the outcome.”

Sunni leaders, who called on their followers to take part in the balloting after boycotting the January national elections, had warned of how important it was to have a completely transparent vote to convince the insurgency that violence was not the right path for change.

“It is very important to gain their trust by holding a clean election,” said Nabil Younis, a respected senior lecturer at Baghdad University.

However, he added, it was also “very difficult. You can’t prevent the militias from interfering.”

Effective Sunni participation in Iraq’s political process is seen as crucial to achieving a unified government to end the sectarianism that threatens to tear the country apart.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Army Gen. George Casey, the U.S. commander in Iraq, issued a statement that Thursday’s election had “shown the potential for Iraqis to choose politics as a means to resolve differences.”

“The newly elected leaders should come together quickly and build bridges for national unity and establish an effective, broad-based government that Iraqis across ethnic and sectarian lines have confidence in,” they stated.

The Western official said that politically-linked armed militias in several instances had intimidated and prevented voters from casting ballots.

He said there were reports of “militias affiliated with parties blocking people from voting or going and voting themselves multiple times.”

“It will be up to the IECI to arbitrate on it,” said the official, adding that a variety of charges had been made, ranging from armed groups intimidating voters in the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk down to the south.

But the official also said it appeared that the problems were restricted to some 30 polling stations, and that it was doubtful that the irregularities would affect the national outcome.

Twelve polling stations failed to open in the Sunni stronghold province of Anbar because of a lack of security, Western and Iraqi officials said.

The Western official said that Sunni-led insurgent groups had agreed that the political process rather than armed violence was the way to protect the Sunni minority, and that returning to armed rebellion to protest election violations would not be helpful.

“Using violence as a means of political pressure is not going to help Iraq,” said the official. “This is a long process; there is no big bang.”

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