- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 29, 2005

A top U.N. official yesterday declared Iraq’s recent parliamentary elections legitimate, even as the country’s election commission pledged to intensify its review for fraud and ballot-box stuffing.

Craig Jenness said his U.N. election team had determined the Dec. 15 voting to be fair and open.

“Turnout was high and the day was largely peaceful; all communities participated,” Mr. Jenness, a Canadian authority on elections, told reporters in Baghdad, adding that he saw no reason for new balloting to be held.

“The United Nations is of the view that these elections were transparent and credible,” he said.

Political leaders, including Sunni groups behind street demonstrations criticizing the dominant Shi’ite religious bloc and demanding new elections, continued to negotiate on how to form a government, a Western diplomat said.

That process could take months, he said in a telephone interview with The Washington Times from Baghdad.

The diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said international observers, aware of the importance of credible elections, might look more carefully at how the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI) is processing purported irregularities.

“Of course the election is legitimate,” IECI spokesman Farid Ayar said, although he added that some ballots will be invalidated because of fraud at less than a dozen voting centers in Baghdad, Irbil and Kirkuk.

Mr. Jenness said the number of complaints was less than one for every 7,000 voters. About 70 percent of Iraq’s 15 million voters went to the polls.

The elections are seen as a crucial step in Iraq’s political process, ushering in a new four-year national assembly and government.

The hope in Washington is that a government representing all of Iraq’s religious and ethnic factions will weaken the violent insurgency and speed up a U.S. military withdrawal.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in an open letter to the people of Iraq released yesterday, said that he was impressed by how the country’s political leaders were “embracing the democratic process.”

“The world is watching these events unfold with respect and admiration,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “We look forward to supporting your wise decisions in fashioning a broadly based government that can earn the support of all elements of the Iraqi people.”

Preliminary results, which gave a big lead to the ruling Shi’ite religious bloc, also indicated that Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, a former Washington insider, will not be re-elected to the new 275-member parliament, his office told the Associated Press.

Before the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Mr. Chalabi, then living in exile, was a favorite of Congress and the Defense Department.

A secular Shi’ite, Mr. Chalabi, 60, fell from influence after his claims that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction were discredited. Pegged as a possible prime minister before the elections, he met last month in Washington with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Mr. Rumsfeld.

Also yesterday, an Iraqi prisoner at a facility in northern Baghdad grabbed an AK-47 rifle from an Iraqi guard and fired indiscriminately, killing eight persons and wounding a U.S. soldier, AP reported, citing Iraqi and American military officials.

The botched escape came days after the United States said it would not hand over prisoners to Iraqi officials until they improved conditions in the overcrowded prison system.

The incident occurred at the Justice Ministry’s A’dala prison in the suburb of Kazimiyah, the former military intelligence headquarters under Saddam.

Iraqi army Brig. Gen. Jalil al-Mehamadawi said the prisoner fatally shot four guards and four fellow inmates before he was restrained.

The U.S. military’s account differed somewhat. Sgt. Keith Robinson said “it was reported that 16 prisoners attempted to escape the facility after first storming the armory and obtaining an undetermined number of weapons.”

Besides the eight deaths, one U.S. soldier and five prisoners were injured, Sgt. Robinson said.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the prison was not under U.S. control. He said coalition forces are training the Iraqis in detention operations so that all such facilities can be turned over to the new government.

The election commission’s Mr. Ayar, responding to thousands of complaints of election violations, intimidation and fraud, acknowledged that some cheating had taken place.

“We will cancel the votes in some centers in Baghdad, Irbil and Kirkuk — we discovered fraud there,” Mr. Ayar said in a telephone interview from Baghdad. “They will be declared invalid.”

But, Mr. Ayar said, voiding those ballots would not be enough to significantly alter the outcome. The election results so far show the Shi’ite religious alliance with a commanding lead over the Kurdish party and new Sunni coalitions.

“When you cancel some 10 centers out of 6,230 it will not make huge or dramatic changes,” Mr. Ayar said.

The Western diplomat said an initial complete count could be announced as early as the end of this week, but that final certified results — which will determine the balance of power in Iraq for the next four years — may not be announced until early next month.

“They are getting very close, but there have been literally thousands of complaints to go through. There are some 2,000 reports of alleged irregularities,” the diplomat said.

But the diplomat did not expect the fervor around the vote results and reports of violations to derail the process.

“The problems are a bump in the road, but it is not a crisis,” he said.

Sunni-led street demonstrations against the violations, and threats of widespread civil protests, did not seem to be affecting closed-door negotiations among political factions, the diplomat said.

The political leaders of the complaining group “actually want to negotiate entry into the government, and they want to do it from the strongest position possible,” the diplomat said.

“There are people flying around Iraq and holding meetings,” he said. “There are discussions between the Sunni groups and Kurds and Shi’ite Islamists, there are discussions between Kurds and Shi’ites, and there are discussion between Kurds and Sunni Arabs — everyone is talking to everybody.”

• This article is based in part on wire reports.



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