- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 29, 2005

BAGHDAD — An international team agreed yesterday to review Iraq’s parliamentary elections, a decision lauded by Sunni Arab and secular Shi’ite groups who have staged repeated protests around Iraq complaining of widespread fraud and intimidation.

Meanwhile, gunmen killed 12 members of an extended Shi’ite family near Latifiyah, a Sunni Arab-dominated town about 20 miles south of Baghdad. Police said the men were taken from their homes, packed into a minivan and shot.

The decision by the International Mission for Iraqi Elections (IMIE), a group of independent electoral management organizations, to send a team of assessors should help placate the opposition, which has complained of ballot-box rigging.

The review also should mollify those groups who thought their views were not being heard, especially among hard-line Sunni Arab parties.

“It is important that the Iraqi people have confidence in the election results and that the voting process, including the process for vote counting, is free and fair,’ said U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad.

He also said: “These experts will be arriving immediately, and we are ready to assist them, if needed.”

The team was coming at the invitation of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, despite a U.N. observer’s endorsement of the Dec. 15 vote, which gave the Shi’ite religious bloc a big lead in preliminary returns.

The observer, Craig Jenness, said Wednesday that his team — which helped the Iraqi election commission organize and oversee the poll — found the elections to be credible and transparent.

Sunni Arabs and secular Shi’ites rejected Mr. Jenness’ findings, saying their concerns — which included political assassinations before the elections — were not addressed.

There have been about 1,500 complaints lodged against the elections, including about 50 serious enough to alter the results in some districts. The overall result, however, was not expected to change.

The United Nations said yesterday that it had encouraged Iraq’s electoral commission to get more outside observers involved in the process, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan welcomed the participation of the IMIE, his spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said.

“It is critical that those Iraqi groups who have complained about the conduct of the election are given a hearing,” Mr. Dujarric said in a statement. “This team of assessors, which was not involved in the conduct of the elections, offers an independent evaluation of these complaints.”

The Iraqi Accordance Front, which is the country’s leading Sunni Arab group, applauded the decision, as did the secular Iraqi National List headed by former Shi’ite Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

“We are optimistic with this international response and hope that it will find a solution for this crisis,” Accordance spokesman Thafir al-Ani told the AP.

A serious crisis involving the elections could set back hopes for a broad-based government that would include minority Sunni Arabs, as well as secular Shi’ites. Such a government could have the legitimacy necessary to diminish the insurgency — a key part of any U.S. military exit strategy from Iraq.

The presence of two Arab experts on the IMIE team could go far in helping to convince Iraqis that the review of the vote will be fair. The team also will consist of a Canadian and a European.

An official for the Iraqi electoral commission, Safwat Rashid, said a review could “evaluate what happened during the elections and what’s going on now. We are highly confident that we did our job properly and we have nothing to hide.”

Preliminary results from the vote have given the governing Shi’ite religious bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, a big lead — but one that still would require forming a coalition with other groups.

In northern Iraq, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, was holding talks with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the cleric who heads the United Iraqi Alliance, and other members of that religious group about forming a coalition government.

There were no Sunni Arabs or secular Shi’ites at the meeting. They said they were waiting for the results of the investigation into their complaints.

In other developments:

• In Baghdad, a suicide bomber killed a police officer, gunmen assassinated an Iraqi driver working with a French company, and a university student was killed in a drive-by shooting.

• Al Qaeda in Iraq threatened to kill five kidnapped employees of the Sudanese Embassy in Baghdad in two days unless Sudan removes its diplomatic mission from Iraq. The claim could not be confirmed immediately.

• Gunmen kidnapped a Lebanese engineer in Iraq, the Lebanese Foreign Ministry said. The ministry’s statement gave no other details on the disappearance of Camile Nassif Tannous, who works for the Schneider engineering firm.

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