- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 21, 2005

National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley warned yesterday against reading too much into the early returns from Iraq’s elections, as the Sunni Arab minority sharpened complaints that the vote last week was flawed.

The leaders of the largest Sunni electoral slate called for the annulment of at least parts of the parliamentary elections after the first returns from Baghdad showed a Shi’ite bloc taking nearly 60 percent of the vote in the key province that includes the capital.

But Mr. Hadley, in remarks after a speech defending the administration’s Iraq policy, said the final vote results might be very different from the preliminary figures released Monday.

“I think you have to be very slow to draw conclusions based on them,” he said.

In the January vote on an interim assembly and in the October constitutional referendum, “we got a lot of preliminary votes that didn’t prove out.”

But in Baghdad, hard-line Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlaq warned of “civil war” in an interview with the Reuters news agency if the Baghdad results help Shi’ite parties dominate the new assembly.

Early returns suggest the leading Sunni alliance finished a distant second in Baghdad, with 19 percent of the vote.

Adnan al-Dulaimi, head of the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front, demanded a new vote in the capital, saying, “If this demand is not met, then we will resort to other measures,” including a boycott of the new parliament.

Iraqi electoral officials dismissed calls for a new vote.

U.S. officials have been hoping that the Dec. 15 vote would stabilize Iraq and provide a way for disaffected Sunnis — about 20 percent of the country’s population but the prime backers of the insurgency — to enter the political process.

President Bush yesterday called Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to urge “broad participation” of all the ethnic and religious groups in the new government, the White House said.

Mr. Hadley said U.S. officials were heartened that turnout increased with each of the three votes this year and is estimated to have been more than 65 percent in the latest vote.

He said it was “no surprise to us” that voting in Iraq broke down along sectarian lines, given the fledgling state of democracy in the country and its political parties.

Mr. Hadley said the coming negotiations in Baghdad could ease the divisions, as the country’s three-member presidential council will need a two-thirds vote in the new parliament to be elected, meaning Sunni support will be vital for any slate.

Mark Schneider, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the complaints about fraud are less worrisome than the growing doubts that Iraq’s Shi’ites and Kurds will agree to real power sharing with the Sunnis.

“The voting patterns suggest that there will be increasing concern about the willingness of the winners to make major concessions on changing the constitution, whether it is about regional power blocs or sharing oil revenues,” he said.

Mr. Hadley’s speech was the latest in a series by Mr. Bush and his senior aides in recent weeks laying out a blueprint for victory in Iraq.

As Mr. Bush and other officials have done, Mr. Hadley struck a conciliatory note with critics of the Iraq war, saying there was expanding “common ground” on the way forward.

Both the administration and its critics now agree, he said, on several main points, including training Iraqi security forces; expanding international support for Iraq’s reconstruction; bringing Sunni Arabs into the political process; and “refocusing” U.S. economic and development aid to make it more effective and visible for ordinary Iraqis.

Both sides also agree that “failure in Iraq is simply not an option,” he said.

But Mr. Hadley said Mr. Bush will oppose any “artificial deadline” to withdraw American forces, adding that it would undermine the Iraqi government, embolden the terrorists and damage U.S. interests around the globe.

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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