BAGHDAD, Jan. 31 -- A day after Iraq's first free election in half a century, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi called on his countrymen to unite and promised to reach out to the country's alienated Sunni Arab minority. The Sunni reaction may determine whether the electoral euphoria can be translated into the stability that has eluded Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
Iraqi officials and leaders abroad seconded Allawi's call, saying they hoped the vote and an inclusive government could prove a turning point for a country that has endured 35 years of dictatorship, as well as bloodshed and hardship in the U.S. occupation that followed.
Army Spec. Luke Saunders of the 443rd Civil Affairs Battalion dances with Iraqi policemen as they celebrate the arrival of a convoy carrying ballots to a collection point in Baghdad. U.S. and Iraqi forces escorted officials, ballots and tally sheets to many such sites.
(John Moore -- AP)
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"The terrorists now know that they cannot win," Allawi said in a statement Monday from Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, which endured a rocket attack the day before the election that killed two people. "We are entering a new era of our history and all Iraqis -- whether they voted or not -- should stand side by side to build their future."
In a day of relative calm nationwide, U.S. troops shot dead four inmates during a riot at a military prison in southern Iraq, U.S. military officials said. Six other prisoners were injured, but no serious injuries among Americans were reported. The officials said U.S. guards opened fire after detainees threw rocks and made weapons during a 45-minute riot at Camp Bucca Theater Internment Facility.
The need for national reconciliation emerged as a theme in the wake of Sunday's elections, as Iraqis awaited the results and the naming of a 275-member parliament that will appoint a government and write a constitution. In Baghdad and some other parts of Iraq, the vote generated scenes of jubilation. But it apparently failed to draw large numbers of Sunnis, especially in rural areas. Many stayed away in protest or because of intimidation.
Allawi promised to work to ensure that "the voice of all Iraqis is present" in the future government. "As we did yesterday to end dictatorship, let us go together toward a bright future -- Sunnis and Shiites, Muslims and Christians, Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens," he said.
Poll workers on Monday finished a preliminary vote count and began dispatching returns to the Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and serves as headquarters for the interim government. A staff of 200 clerks, working around the clock on 80 computers, will tally the votes.
Perhaps as early as Tuesday, the commission will begin releasing results. But it will take at least 10 days to know the entire outcome, said Adil Lami, a top official with the Independent Electoral Commission.
Iraqi officials had estimated that about 60 percent of voters took part -- if true, an exceptionally strong turnout given the widespread threats of violence. But Carlos Valenzuela, head of the U.N. election advisory group here, said it would take a couple of days to confirm anecdotal evidence of the high turnout.
In particular, officials will watch returns from Sunni-dominated areas in central and northern Iraq, where the insurgency has been strongest. Iraqi officials suggested that turnout in those areas was higher than predicted, but Valenzuela cautioned against excessive optimism.
Expectations for turnout in such areas "were very low," so even a somewhat higher number "doesn't mean very much, does it?" Valenzuela said. "It is better than expected, so it is good news. How good news it is, we don't know."
U.S. officials struck a similar note of caution. A diplomat briefing reporters on condition of anonymity said "good anecdotal information" indicated that "Sunni participation was considerably lower than participation by the other groups," although the number appeared better in mixed areas such as Baghdad, Basra in the south and Baqubah north of the capital.
In the months before the vote, insurgents staked their reputation on disrupting the elections, which will likely empower Kurdish and religious Shiite Muslim parties after 80 years of Sunni political domination. U.S. and Iraqi security forces, who poured into the streets in Baghdad and other cities, faced an onslaught of attacks Sunday -- 260 against targets of all kinds, according to U.S. officials -- but the death toll of 44 Iraqis proved lower than that on some of the worst days of the insurgency.
On Monday, insurgents asserted responsibility for the downing of a British C-130 Hercules transport plane about 25 miles north of Baghdad, about a half-hour after polls closed. A video delivered to al-Jazeera, an Arab satellite TV network based in Qatar, by a group calling itself the 1920 Revolution Brigades showed a finger pressing a black button a white box with wires, then images of projectiles flying through the air. It cut to footage of men in street clothes walking through burning wreckage, including an engine, strewn across the ground.