By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
BAGHDAD, Feb. 3 -- The head of Iraq's electoral commission said Tuesday that it is investigating "serious" allegations of electoral fraud in Anbar province that, if corroborated, could alter the outcome of Saturday's election, providing the clearest indication yet that voting irregularities occurred during provincial balloting.
A coalition of parties that competed against the Iraqi Islamic Party in Anbar submitted complaints that the commission considers grave, commission chief Faraj al-Haidari said. "We will deal with it seriously because it might change the result of the election in this province," he said.
As tensions sparked by the allegations of electoral fraud spread through Ramadi, the provincial capital, Iraqi law enforcement officials and U.S. Marines braced Tuesday for a possible outbreak of violence.
"I am afraid of the bad consequences if the results of the election will be the opposite of what the blocs and parties expect," said Maj. Gen. Murdhi al-Duleimi, the province's chief of security operations. "I am afraid that we will return to the starting point due to the increase in threats."
The Marines are merely "observing," U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. David Russell, a military spokesman, said in an e-mail, but "would be ready to assist" if needed.
The Iraqi Islamic Party, which controls the western province that was the cradle of the Sunni insurgency and has in recent months become among the safest in Iraq, competed aggressively for votes, challenging a coalition that includes tribal leaders who gained prominence because the United States employed them to fight insurgents.
The tensions surface as the American military footprint in Anbar has shrunk dramatically. The military in recent weeks closed bases in the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, which were among its largest in Iraq.
The results of the provincial elections, Iraq's first since 2005, are expected to redraw the country's political landscape when official returns are announced in three weeks. The shortage of information about results, which began trickling out informally hours after the polls closed, has added to popular anxiety over the confrontations and coalition-building that are likely to dominate Iraqi politics in the months ahead.
Leaders of the Awakening, a tribal group that enjoyed U.S. support, have accused the Iraqi Islamic Party of committing fraud to stay in power -- an allegation the ruling party has denied. The Awakening is a network of tribal leaders who banded together to fight the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq and other groups that gained control of large portions of Anbar in 2004.
The Iraqi Islamic Party currently has 26 of 29 seats on the provincial council.
Hameed al-Hais, the leader of the Iraqi Tribes electoral list, said members of six political blocs in Anbar who believe the Iraqi Islamic Party rigged the vote delivered a written complaint to Iraq's electoral commission Tuesday outlining their allegations.
"We will not let al-Qaeda return to Anbar through the IIP," he said. "We will fight the same as before." The Iraqi Islamic Party has long denied links to the insurgency.
Duleimi said his forces were prepared to respond to any violence or unrest triggered by reactions to the electoral results. He said he doesn't anticipate asking the U.S. military for help.
Haidari, the head of the Iraqi electoral commission, urged party leaders to tone down the rhetoric and wait for the provisional results, which will be released Thursday.
"It is not necessary to listen to the rumors of the parties," he said. "Anyone can say that they're the winners."
Haidari said the commission received hundreds of complaints, which are being reviewed by a team of 15 lawyers and five elections experts. He said the commission would accept no new complaints after Tuesday and expects to have adjudicated all of them within three weeks using a three-tier color system for classification. The complaints lodged against the Iraqi Islamic Party, he said, are the first the commission has labeled as "red," or highly serious.
Turnout in Anbar, 42 percent, was among the lowest in the country.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law list appears to have performed well in many key provinces, including Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala, where the rival Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq has had either a plurality or majority of seats.
Ahmad Fatlawi, a spokesman for the Supreme Council in Najaf, said losing control of the province would be a "catastrophe," as it could halt ongoing economic and social initiatives.
Fayez al-Shammery, a spokesman for the State of Law list in the province, said a victory there by the list would put the province back on track.
"The status quo will change because the council that has ruled for four years has not achieved much," he said.
Also Tuesday, Iraqi authorities announced the detention of a woman accused of recruiting female suicide bombers. Samira Ahmed Jasim recruited more than 80 female suicide bombers for attacks in Diyala province and Baghdad, said Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, the spokesman for security operations in Baghdad. She was detained late last month, Atta said. Authorities divulged the news of her detention at a news conference during which they played a videotaped confession.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military announced that it anticipates releasing roughly 50 Iraqi detainees per day to meet its obligation under a security agreement the United States signed with Iraq last year. Some will be released outright and others will be transferred to Iraqi authorities, the military said.
Special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Qais Mizher, Zaid Sabah and Dalya Hassan in Baghdad contributed to this report.