Hundreds of Iraqi Shiites Protest Voting Results, Allege Fraud

By Zaid Sabah and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 2, 2009

BAGHDAD, March 1 -- Hundreds of Shiite protesters took to the streets Sunday in restive Diyala province, asserting that electoral fraud had deprived Shiites of seats on an influential provincial council.

Shiite politicians won five seats on the Diyala council, the equivalent of a U.S. state legislature, while Sunnis won 15, Kurds took six and a secular party won three in the Jan. 31 elections. Before the vote, Shiites had dominated the council with 20 seats.

The protest, the first significant public demonstration by Shiites against the election results, underscored the tensions in Diyala, 40 miles north of Baghdad, where Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds struggle for control. Even as security has improved in other parts of Iraq, Sunni insurgents remain entrenched in Diyala, and attacks on U.S. troops continue.

"The demonstration today is to protest the unsatisfactory results," said Saad Chaloub, a Shiite politician who won a seat and protested in the Shiite town of Khalis.

Others were more blunt: "The results were tampered with 100 percent by Kurds and the Iraqi Islamic Party," said Mohammed Mahdi, a politician from the Shiite Fadhila Party, referring to the country's largest Sunni political bloc. Mahdi did not offer specific evidence to back his assertion; Kurdish and Sunni groups have denied accusations of electoral fraud.

The protesters demanded that the electoral commission be replaced, declaring that it was influenced by Sunni officials. Many Shiite voters in the province could not find their names on voter lists while large numbers of people displaced by violence could not return to their home areas to cast ballots, Shiite politicians have said.

Although the elections unfolded relatively peacefully, Iraq's national electoral commission threw out results from more than 30 polling stations where tampering occurred. But the fraud was not considered widespread, and the results have generally been accepted.

The elections, held in 14 provinces, redistributed local power toward Sunnis, which many hope will foster reconciliation among Iraq's feuding sects. Large numbers of Sunnis boycotted the 2005 elections because they were opposed to the U.S. occupation or feared attacks by Sunni insurgents. That allowed Shiites and Kurds to dominate the councils, which control local funds and security, especially in Diyala.

In Fallujah, west of Baghdad, a man blew himself up Sunday, killing a policeman and wounding two others, police and officials said. The bomber tried to ambush Sheik Eifan al-Issawi, a tribal leader of the Awakening, the U.S.-backed Sunni movement that turned against the Sunni insurgency. Issawi had won a seat in the provincial elections in Anbar province.

The bomber, police said, had first set off a sound bomb near Issawi's house in an attempt to draw him out. But police and Awakening fighters surrounded the bomber, who blew himself up.

Some said they viewed the attack as a message regarding President Obama's plans to withdraw U.S. combat troops by August 2010.

"This suicide bombing was a message from al-Qaeda saying we are still here and did not die," said Khalid al-Eifan, an Awakening leader and a cousin of Issawi. "I don't think they can rise up again in Anbar. But they will try to surprise us now and then with such suicide attacks."

A special correspondent in Baqubah contributed to this report.

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