By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
BAGHDAD, Dec. 20 -- Sunni and secular political groups angrily claimed Tuesday that last week's Iraqi national election was rigged, demanded a new vote and threatened to leave a shambles the delicate plan to bring the country's wary factions together in a new government.
Faced with preliminary vote counts that suggest a strong victory by the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of Shiite Muslim religious parties that dominates the outgoing government, political leaders of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority hinted that insurgent violence would be accelerated by the suspicions of fraud.
Alluding to Sunnis who chose to abandon their earlier rejection of Iraqi politics and participate in Thursday's election, Adnan Dulaimi, a chief of the main Sunni coalition, the Tawafaq front, demanded: "What would we tell those whom we indirectly convinced to stop the attacks during the election period? What would we tell those people who wanted to boycott and we convinced them to participate?"
The preliminary results, he said, were "not in the interest of stability of the country."
Figures released by Iraq's electoral commission indicated that, with ballots from more than 95 percent of boxes counted across the country, the Shiite religious coalition appeared poised to dominate the four-year parliament -- and, with it, selection of the next prime minister.
Though the Shiites' slim majority in the outgoing parliament was expected to dwindle because of high Sunni Arab turnout Thursday, initial calculations showed the Shiite list winning overwhelmingly in 10 of Iraq's 18 provinces, including the most populous, Baghdad. A coalition of ethnic Kurdish parties swept the three northernmost provinces, where Kurds predominate.
The final distribution of seats in the 275-member National Assembly will be decided by a complicated formula that is based on turnout and is skewed to reward small parties by giving them some representation. Electoral commission members cautioned that the election results must be checked and cross-checked and that the allegations of ballot violations would be settled before the results were declared final. That process might last into January, said Farid Ayar, an elections official.
Ayar said Tuesday that among the 1,000 complaints received so far, about 20, if valid, were serious enough to have affected the vote. The complaints included "some forgeries, fraud, and use of force and efforts to intimidate," he told reporters. "We will study all of these very carefully."
Former prime minister Ayad Allawi, whose secular slate appeared likely to finish fourth in the race and play a small role in the government, also questioned the results and called a meeting for Wednesday of groups angry with the outcome.
And Saleh Mutlak, who headed an independent Sunni slate, said: "I don't think there is any practical point for us for being in this National Assembly if things stay like this.
"This election is completely false. It insults democracy everywhere. Everything was based on fraud, cheating, frightening people and using religion to frighten the people," he said. "It is terrorism more than democracy."
Mutlak said he had expected his slate to capture 70 parliamentary seats, but he said it seemed likely to win fewer than 20, according to the preliminary results.
U.S. officials continued to praise the conduct of the election, and Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, a leader of the Shiite ruling coalition, played down the complaints in an appearance on Iraqi television Tuesday night. The election, he said, "should be seen as a victory for all Iraqis, regardless of any doubts or skepticism."
The campaign leading to Thursday's vote was marked by heightened violence, including the assassinations of candidates and election workers and attacks on party offices. But the balloting itself was hailed in diverse quarters as an overall success.
As results emerged this week, however, cries of fraud and ballot-rigging surged.
Mutlak said, for example, that in Shiite-populated southern Iraq, militiamen fired guns in the air to intimidate voters, ballots disappeared under the control of militias and polling places claimed to run out of ballots on election day. Other critics have complained of ghost voters, duplicate voters and people being bused from other districts to vote.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad insisted Tuesday that "overall, from what we know so far, the election went very well."
"It's too soon to speak definitively about the results, but everyone, all the communities, participated," he said. "That was very important. That was a significant step."
Though estimated to account for 20 percent of Iraq's population, Sunni Arabs dominated the government of Saddam Hussein, as well as previous administrations. When Hussein was toppled in 2003 by the U.S.-led invasion, Sunnis largely rejected the new political process that was brokered by American occupation officials and gradually dominated by the country's Shiite majority.
After Sunni Arabs boycotted elections for a transitional parliament in January, the United States worked strenuously behind the scenes to bring them into the political process, arguing that Sunni participation in government might dampen the insurgency.
The Sunni Arab vote in provinces of central Iraq was splintered among Dulaimi's main Sunni coalition, Mutlak's party and, in Salahuddin province, a small party headed by Mishan Jabouri.
In addition to the Sunni slates, secular groups appeared to attract little support, including those of Allawi and Ahmed Chalabi, who as an exile had pushed the Bush administration to invade Iraq. There was much speculation that Allawi, a secular Shiite, would capitalize on dissatisfaction with Iraq's current leaders, but his party received only 14 percent of the vote in Baghdad and a lower percentage in other provinces.
"It looks like people preferred to vote for their ethnic or sectarian identity," Khalilzad told reporters. "But for Iraq to succeed, there has to be cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic cooperation. At this point, it seems sectarian and ethnic identity has played a dominant role in the vote."
Even before the voting began, Sunni leaders had said the country's electoral system was stacked against them.
The number of parliamentary seats allocated to each province was based on the number of registered voters rather than population, since no reliable census exists for much of the country. That shortchanged Sunni regions that boycotted the January elections, said B.B. Abdul Qadir, an official with the Iraqi Islamic Party.
According to an analysis that Qadir presented to Iraqi election officials, the four provinces with the largest Sunni populations have eight fewer seats than they should.
A U.S. official in Fallujah, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, said there was some validity to the claim but that the total shortfall was probably closer to a few seats.
Correspondent Jonathan Finer and special correspondents Omar Fekeiki and Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.