Tuesday, February 1, 2005

BAGHDAD — Sunni leaders say a last-minute surge of interest in Sunday’s elections brought larger-than-expected numbers to the polls in Sunni areas but that many were kept from voting by a lack of polling stations, ballots and security.

U.S. and Iraqi officials alike are anxious to make sure that Sunnis — who make up about 20 percent of the population but have long held most power and the best jobs in Iraq — are included in the new government that emerges from Sunday’s balloting.

Sunnis are already the principle participants in the violent insurgency that has raged since Saddam Hussein’s fall, and there is fear that it will only grow worse if the election leaves them feeling disenfranchised.

Sharif Ali bin Hussein, head of Sunni-dominated Constitutional Monarchy Party, said yesterday that many Sunnis recently realized that their own interests would suffer if they stayed away from the polls because of security concerns and a boycott called by Sunni clerical parties.

“Just in the last two weeks it began to dawn on them what was going to happen,” said Mr. Hussein. “In the last few days we were surprised to hear some prayer leaders asking Sunnis to vote.”

No official turnout figures have been released, and there is only anecdotal evidence from many Sunni cities because of pre-election violence that made it too dangerous for independent observers to be present.

Mr. Hussein said there had been a “very, very low turnout” in the central provinces, where most Sunnis live, but argued that many more had wanted to participate.

“Where they could vote they did vote,” Mr. bin Ali said. “Where they couldn’t vote — because [the authorities] didn’t give them election centers, or they were too far, or they told them the night before and where [or] they didn’t give them security — they didn’t vote.”

Interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, who is a Sunni, also said yesterday that “tens of thousands were unable to cast their votes because of the lack of ballots in Basra, Baghdad and Najaf.”

Leaders of Iraq’s election commission could not be reached for comment on the complaints last night. But the panel issued a release earlier urging those with election-day complaints to submit accounts promptly, and saying that 60 out of the 5,231 election centers had failed to open on Sunday.

Political leaders said the Sunni turnout was strongest in mixed areas like Mosul and Kirkuk, where Sunnis live alongside Shi’ites or Kurds.

Large numbers of Sunnis realized in the final days that provincial councils in those cities were also at stake and that their Shi’ite neighbors were going to vote in large numbers in spite of a campaign of intimidation, these politicians said.

Mishan Jabouri, leader of the Sunni-heavy Homeland Party, said he had pleaded with U.S. Embassy officials and the election commission to prepare for a last-minute surge of interest in Sunni strongholds.

“I said, ‘Please try and open an election center in Ramadi. Please, there are not enough ballots in Hawija, not enough in Beiji, not enough in Mosul.’”

In one complaint filed by an official of the Homeland Party in Hawija, a violent Sunni stronghold southwest of Kirkuk, voters complained that ballots ran out at 11:30 a.m. and extra ballots didn’t arrive until 3:30 p.m., two hours before the close of voting. Party officials say 8,000 too few ballots were delivered.

“The election commission did not distribute ballots according to needs of each center, especially in Arab areas,” wrote Mustafa Ahmed al-Tamawi, a party official in Kirkuk.

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