By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 29, 2010; A07
BAGHDAD -- The leader of the bloc that received the most votes in last month's elections called Wednesday for the creation of an internationally backed caretaker authority to prevent what he said were unlawful attempts by Iraq's government to overturn the results.
The move escalated a standoff between the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, which won the most seats in the March 7 parliamentary elections, and an alliance led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which came in a close second. Former prime minister Ayad Allawi, the leader of Iraqiya, also proposed extending the mandate of the outgoing parliament until a new one is in place, "for the purpose of monitoring the executive branch."
Adding to the political tension, Human Rights Watch released a report late Tuesday saying that members of a military unit under the command of Maliki, a Shiite, systemically tortured and sexually abused hundreds of Sunni Arab prisoners.
"The horror we found suggests torture was a norm in [al-Muthanna]," Joe Stork, the group's Middle East director, said in a statement, referring to a secret detention facility at a military airport in Baghdad. "The government needs to prosecute all of those responsible for this systemic brutality."
In recent days, U.S. officials have expressed concern about the post-election wrangling, which has prevented Iraq's electoral commission from certifying the results and has indefinitely delayed formation of a new government.
Standing in the way are a manual recount of votes cast in Baghdad and efforts by a commission run by Shiite politicians to disqualify winning candidates for alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party. At the same time, the U.S. military intends to withdraw about half of its forces by the end of August, leaving 50,000 troops.
Allawi said Wednesday that the Justice and Accountability Commission is carrying out "malicious disqualifications."
Sunnis, who won meager representation in the 2005 parliamentary elections, voted in droves this year, contributing to Iraqiya's narrow lead. Maliki's slate won two fewer seats but could conceivably come out on top. That would almost certainly spark widespread anger in Sunni communities, where many view Maliki as sectarian and increasingly authoritarian.
Maliki and other Shiite leaders have called the recent challenges to the election results lawful processes that must run their course. Allawi said Wednesday's statement would be Iraqiya's final appeal for fairness. He warned that the party would henceforth "revert to the Iraqi people to implement their will."
The Human Rights Watch report, which draws from interviews with 42 former prisoners at the al-Muthanna facility, has sparked anger in the northern province of Nineveh, one of the most volatile in Iraq.
Nineveh's governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi, said provincial officials met this week with hundreds of relatives of the inmates who spent time at al-Muthanna.
"We listened to their stories, and they made everyone cry," said Nujaifi, a Sunni Arab.
The report said guards beat, shocked and sexually assaulted the inmates in an effort to elicit confessions. Guards raped inmates, sodomized them with various objects, and forced some to perform sexual acts on guards and with fellow detainees, the report said.
Maliki's government said it is investigating the abuse claims, but it has played down the allegations, saying they are politically motivated.
Special correspondent Jinan Hussein contributed to this report.