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After playing down election violence in Iraq, U.S. military reassesses

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 11, 2010; A08

BAGHDAD -- After initially playing down the scope of the violence during Sunday's parliamentary elections in Iraq, the U.S. military has concluded in an internal assessment that at least 37 people were killed in 136 attacks.

U.S. officials have hailed the vote as a milestone event that proceeded with little disruption, and they disputed election-day media reports of widespread violence.

But the military has since concluded that at least 30 of Sunday's attacks, which included bomb blasts, rocket attacks and small-arms fire, killed or wounded people. A U.S. official provided the data to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity because it is at odds with the public statements of senior military officials.

As explosions reverberated throughout Baghdad on Sunday morning, frightening voters and delaying the dispatch of international observer teams, the U.S. military issued statements contradicting media reports on the violence that broadly match its subsequent assessment.

In one statement, the military had called the dozens of blasts that thundered across the capital "small-scale explosions" that had "so far fallen short in deterring voter turnout."

In fact, Baghdad, where most of the explosions in the country occurred, had among the lowest turnouts of any province, 53 percent, compared with the national average of 62 percent.

The military statement said the explosions had occurred in "dilapidated" cars and empty buildings. On Monday, Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, lauded the performance of Iraqi security forces on election day, saying there had been only "two significant incidents" recorded.

Odierno said explosives packed in water bottles caused most of the blasts. "There was nothing in there, unless you were right next to it, that could hurt anybody," he said.

The deadliest attacks of the day occurred in eastern Baghdad, where two booby-trapped residential buildings collapsed, killing and wounding occupants. After being challenged by reporters who had witnessed the aftermath of some of the attacks and interviewed survivors, Odierno said reporters were getting information from "sources that don't necessarily give out accurate information."

The military did not respond to an inquiry Wednesday about the discrepancy between its public remarks and the official assessment.

Meanwhile, Iraqi electoral officials delayed the announcement of preliminary results from Sunday's vote until at least Thursday. The vote tally has been delayed by probes into complaints from thousands of voters who could not find their names on electoral rolls and by a political dispute over how and whether to count votes for 55 candidates who were barred from running the day before the elections.

U.S. officials are closely watching the dispute because they fear it has the potential to incite violence and widen divisions among political parties as they start to assemble a new government. About 30 of the 55 disqualified candidates belong to the Iraqiya list, led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi. His bloc, popular among Sunni and secular Iraqis, has emerged as a top competitor to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition. Maliki has endorsed the bans.

The disqualified candidates were replacements for politicians an Iraqi government commission had disqualified weeks before the vote for purported allegiance to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party. The vetting and disqualification of candidates has caused a political uproar because Shiite politicians competing in the elections, including onetime U.S. ally Ahmed Chalabi, run the commission.

The nonpartisan International Election Monitors Institute, which had a team of international observers in Baghdad on Sunday, expressed concern about the disqualification of candidates in an otherwise largely positive report issued this week. "I think [the disqualification] was pretty ad hoc," said one of the observers, Scott Klug, a former Wisconsin congressman. "It kind of hobbled the whole election process."

Correspondent Leila Fadel and special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.

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