Envoy Faults Militias' Interference in Iraq Vote

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 17, 2005

BAGHDAD, Dec. 16 -- Kurdish and Shiite factional militias and other armed men blocked voters from polling sites in scattered locations during Iraq's national elections, Iraqi and U.S. officials said Friday. While the intimidation likely was not serious enough to influence the outcome of Thursday's vote, one U.S. diplomat said, the overt militia role was part of a dangerous trend in Iraqi politics.

"This should not grow," the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters in Baghdad. It was the latest of several U.S. warnings to the transitional government and political parties about the escalating role of party-linked militias. "This must be contained," the diplomat said.

Iraqi army trucks, escorted at times by U.S. military helicopters, carried ballot boxes to election centers across the country Friday, the last day of a three-day security crackdown imposed for Thursday's National Assembly elections. Some election officials tentatively estimated a 70 percent turnout for the vote, in which there was large-scale participation by Sunni Arabs for the first time since U.S. forces overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Residents of Baghdad and cities across the country enjoyed the relative peace brought by the curfew, driving ban and other restrictions enforced by tens of thousands of Iraqi and U.S. security personnel. With no traffic, and an unusually steady supply of electricity silencing private generators, Baghdad relaxed to the sounds of birds singing in date palm trees and children shouting as they played soccer in trash-strewn streets.

Birds fluttered up from their roosts with each in a series of afternoon explosions, which the Interior Ministry said were U.S. airstrikes south of Baghdad linked to the capture there of a participant in election day mortar attacks on the capital's fortified Green Zone.

In the Euphrates River town of Parwana, four children and one Iraqi soldier were killed Friday in what U.S. Marines said was a mortar attack near a polling center.

An Iraqi election commission official, Ezzedin Mohamady, said 178 election complaints had been received so far, 35 charging "violent interference" by officials. The U.S. diplomat said all sides had lodged complaints. He said the reported incidents in which militias either entered polling places or blocked would-be voters -- evidently suspected to be supporters of opposition parties -- "absolutely" had occurred.

Both the Kurdish and Shiite blocs in the transitional government maintain private militias of thousands of armed fighters. Officially outlawed, the militias are occasionally given new designations as private security details or their members are nominally absorbed into the Iraqi police or army. Shiite religious parties put hundreds of their militiamen in the streets for two days last week in what were seen by some as shows of force going into Thursday's elections.

The militias -- initially guerrilla forces of anti-Hussein Kurdish and Shiite opposition organizations -- surged in numbers in the security vacuum brought about by the collapse and disbanding of the Iraqi army, coupled with the inability of stretched-thin U.S. forces to curb them. The Shiite-Kurdish coalition government and Shiite religious parties have given only lip service to neutralizing the militias, even as U.S. forces are handing over security responsibilities in many southern Shiite and northern Kurdish cities where the militias have been prominent.

The complaints about militia interference in the elections came from mixed Kurdish-Arab cities in the north and from the heavily Shiite south, the U.S. diplomat said.

It is time for parties "saying they want democracy and saying they are believers in the democratic process to act like it," the diplomat said. "That means they need to rein in their zealots."

The new government born out of Thursday's elections will have to confront the militias in 2006, the diplomat said.

Some diplomats in Baghdad suggested the governing Shiite alliance, which held 148 seats in the transitional parliament, may have fallen to about 120 seats in Thursday's vote. That would leave the alliance as the largest bloc in the legislature but likely compel it to be more open to deal-making and compromise if it hopes to build a coalition that would give it the two-thirds legislative support needed to form a government.

Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite and former interim prime minister considered the leading opposition candidate for the next premiership, appears to have done well in Baghdad and among overseas voters and taken away a significant amount of Shiite support from the religious parties in the south. Allawi in turn saw Sunni candidates siphon support from him in the west, where Sunni Arabs predominate but he is nevertheless popular.

In one snapshot of the Shiite vote, an election center in the heavily Shiite city of Najaf reported logging 55 percent of votes for the ruling Shiite alliance, 13 percent for Allawi and 13 percent for Mithal Alusi, a Sunni who made several well-received television appearances during the campaign.

Ahmed Chalabi, a secular Shiite cited as one of three or four top hopefuls for prime minister, received 0.5 percent of the vote at that center.

Special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Salih Saif Aldin in Tikrit contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company