By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 29, 2005
BAGHDAD, Dec. 28 -- The top U.N. elections official in Iraq said Wednesday that the country's heavily criticized parliamentary election was "transparent, credible and good" and that he saw no reason to rerun it.
The statement by Craig Jenness, a U.N. special commissioner, was the strongest independent endorsement of an election that has sparked accusations of rampant fraud and threats of increased insurgent violence during near-daily protests in cities across the country. Issued at the start of a news conference where Jenness appeared alongside officials from Iraq's election commission, his statement also amounted to a show of support for the beleaguered panel.
Also Wednesday, a shootout inside a Baghdad prison left at least nine people dead and six wounded, including a U.S. soldier, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
Since the Dec. 15 election, which preliminary results suggest was dominated in much of the country by the Shiite Muslim religious parties that control Iraq's transitional government, monitors and observers filed about 1,500 complaints with the election commission, many of which have been investigated.
The commission has fined some parties for violations and acknowledged mistakes by monitors. The commission's chairman, Abdul-Hussein Hendawi, said Wednesday that votes cast in the northern city of Kirkuk by tens of thousands of displaced ethnic Kurds were initially disqualified because of a mistake by an international election official. The votes were eventually allowed, he said.
Jenness called the number of complaints "low" but acknowledged that "not all candidates will be satisfied" with the results. He said, however, that "we at the United Nations see no justification in calls for a rerun."
Sunni Arab and secular parties have led the calls for a new vote, threatening greater unrest if their demands are not met. Former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, told CNN on Wednesday evening that although a new ballot throughout the country was not practical, there were "certain areas" where one should be held and the results from the Dec. 15 vote "completely waved away."
Sunni Arabs, who occupied most top posts in the government of Saddam Hussein, represent an estimated 20 percent of the population. But they make up a majority of Iraq's insurgency, and their involvement in the political process is widely considered critical to stemming the violence.
In Samarra, about 65 miles north of Baghdad, a few thousand demonstrators gathered to condemn the elections. Some carried photos of Sunni leaders or of Hussein carrying a rifle, and they waved banners that read: "Forgery in the election is treason."
"If they don't respond to our demands, we shall show them things they have never seen before," Ahmad Mahdi Dhaye, a cleric and member of the Association of Muslim Scholars, a leading Sunni religious group, told the crowd.
Iraqi election commissioners said Wednesday that their lives had been endangered by those fomenting anger over the results. "It is encouraging some terrorists to take personal revenge on the commission members by threatening to kill and kidnap them and their families," Hendawi said.
The violence at the Iraqi-run prison, known as Camp Justice and located in a neighborhood in north Baghdad, began just after 8 a.m. when at least 16 inmates tried to escape by storming the armory and seizing weapons, the U.S. military said in a statement. A firefight ensued, and four guards and four inmates were killed, along with an interpreter, the military said.
Accounts of the incident, including tallies of the number of dead and wounded provided by U.S. and Iraqi sources, varied widely, however. Some reports from prison employees suggested that as many as 20 prisoners had been killed or wounded.
A later statement by the military Wednesday afternoon said that all prisoners were accounted for, but a spokesman for Iraq's Defense Ministry, Muhammed Askary, told al-Arabiya television Wednesday evening that Iraqi forces were still searching for three inmates.
The high-security facility holds about 200 prisoners, most incarcerated for violent crimes. Several sources said the inmates began the assault by overpowering a guard and taking his rifle.
The condition of Iraqi prisons has come under intense scrutiny in recent months with the disclosure of abuses at two Interior Ministry facilities, where many inmates were found to have been tortured. The U.S. military has said it will not turn over detainees or detention facilities to the Iraqi government until prison conditions have improved.
Also Wednesday, al-Arabiya aired footage purporting to show a French citizen abducted by insurgents Dec. 5, part of a recent surge in kidnappings of foreigners. The man, identified as Bernard Planche, an employee of a nongovernmental organization involved in water projects, said on the video that he was "sorry for everything that has happened" and thanked "those who are trying to help me."
What appeared to be the name of an insurgent group -- "Monitoring for Iraq" -- appeared on the screen. About 425 foreigners have been abducted in Iraq since the U.S. invasion, a Western official said late last week.
Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and Salih Saif Aldin in Samarra contributed to this report.