Iraq Turnout Is Higher Than in Last 2 Ballots

By Omar Fekeiki and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 22, 2005

BAGHDAD, Dec. 21 -- Nearly 70 percent of eligible voters participated in parliamentary elections here last week, a turnout far exceeding that of the two previous Iraqi ballots this year, election officials said Wednesday.

But they also said they were investigating at least 20 serious complaints of impropriety related to the election, the results of which have been hotly contested by a range of parties.

"The question is not one of finger-pointing at a particular list or group, because from the information and complaints we have now, violations took place" in all provinces, said Abdul-Hussein Hendawi, who heads the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq.

He provided only general details on what violations were being investigated but said U.N. experts were involved in the investigation.

"They are collecting evidence, checking lists, gathering any material used in alleged forgeries and then cross-checking against other data," Hendawi said. Ballot boxes stuffed beyond the 600-vote legal limit would also be scrutinized, he added.

Slightly less than 70 percent of registered voters, nearly 10.9 million Iraqis, participated in the elections, up from 58 percent in January's parliamentary voting and 63 percent in the October constitutional referendum.

The increase was mostly attributable to the participation of Sunni Arabs, who have slowly entered the Iraqi political process since largely boycotting the January vote. This time, the highest turnout among Iraq's 18 provinces came in Sunni-majority Salahuddin, where more than 88 percent of those registered voted.

The participation of Sunni Arabs in politics is widely considered a key to undermining Iraq's violent Sunni-led insurgency. A U.S. soldier was killed Monday by an improvised bomb south of Baghdad, the military reported Wednesday. In Khalis, north of Baghdad, two workers on a U.S. base were killed and nine wounded Wednesday when gunmen attacked their car.

Preliminary figures released this week show that voting last Thursday broke along ethnic and sectarian lines, with a sweeping victory for the Shiite Muslim religious parties in much of the country, ethnic Kurds dominating their three northern provinces and minority Sunni Arabs winning most of their seats in the country's north and west.

But several Sunni parties, along with a diverse coalition led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, have said they were victimized by fraud and other violations of electoral law ranging from ballot-box stuffing, to people being bused outside their home regions to vote, to police-linked militias intimidating voters.

Several parties hoping to contest the election results gathered in Baghdad on Wednesday to plot strategy, among them Allawi's Iraqi National Accord slate; the Tawafaq front, which got the most votes among Sunni parties; and the National Dialogue Front, led by Sunni hard-liner Saleh Mutlak.

"Our main demand is that the commission should delete names of candidates and even slates if necessary, because they cheated," said Ibrahim Janabi, who is aligned with Allawi.

The groups will gather all election-related complaints and evidence, Janabi said, and present them in a meeting to be held Thursday. Party leaders will sign a document that includes all the examples of fraud and intimidation and "lays down demands," said Naseer Ani, whose Iraqi Islamic Party is part of the Tawafaq front.

Islamic Party head Tariq Hashimi, however, acknowledged that the results were unlikely to change, an outcome some other Sunni leaders have warned could intensify the insurgency.

"The problem is that the adversary runs the country," Hashimi said. "I think if they don't solve this problem, Iraq's politics will be in danger."

Special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company