U.N. says it won't review elections in Iraq

Sunni Arab and secular Shiite factions demanded that an international body review complaints about voting fraud in last week's elections and threatened to boycott the new legislature. But the United Nations rejected the idea. "The U.N. is not going to conduct an independent review of the election results," U.N. associate spokesman Robert Sullivan said in New York.

In violence Friday, gunmen attacked an Iraqi army checkpoint in Adhaim, 60 kilometers (35 miles) north of Baqouba, killing eight soldiers and wounding seventeen, an Iraqi army officer said on condition he not be identified for fear of reprisal attacks. Earlier this month 19 Iraqi soldiers were killed in an ambush in Adhaim.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Friday said President Bush had authorized new cuts in U.S. combat troops in Iraq, below the 138,000 level that prevailed for most of this year. Rumsfeld did not reveal the exact size of the troop cut, but Pentagon officials have said it could be as much as 7,000 combat troops.

Two army brigades that had been scheduled for combat tours will no longer deploy to Iraq. That will reduce the number of combat brigades in Iraq from 17 to 15.

The demand Thursday for a review came two days after preliminary returns indicated the current governing group, the Shiite religiously oriented United Iraqi Alliance, was getting bigger than expected majorities in Baghdad, which has large numbers of Shiites and Sunnis. Although final results are not expected until January, secular Shiites and Sunni Arabs were alarmed. The formerly dominant Sunni minority, in particular, fears being marginalized by the Shiite majority, which was oppressed during Saddam Hussein's reign.

But the criticisms of the election could also be part of jockeying for position by both Sunnis and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, before negotiations begin on forming a new coalition government. No group is expected to win a majority of the legislature's 275 seats.

A representative for Allawi described the Dec. 15 vote as "fraudulent" and called the elected lawmakers "illegitimate." Thirty-five political groups that competed in the vote issued a statement calling for the disbandment of the electoral commission, known as the IECI, because of alleged problems with the balloting. The groups said the hundreds of complaints about fraud and intimidation of voters should be reviewed by international organizations such as the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization of the Islamic Conference or the Arab League.

"We hold the IECI responsible for all the violations which took place during the elections and demand that it be dissolved and a suitable alternative to be found," said the statement, read by Ali al-Timimi, head of a secular Shiite candidate grouping, the Hilla al-Fayha List. He added that "if this is not achieved, then we will have no choice but to refuse the results and boycott the new parliament." Jalal Talabani, the country's Kurdish president, met with representatives of the main Sunni Arab coalition, the Iraqi Accordance Front, in an effort to defuse the crisis.

"There is a dangerous situation after the release of the preliminary results of the elections, and we are working to avoid any political crisis," said Planning Minister Barham Saleh, a member of Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

He added that all of Iraq's political parties "have to deal with the electoral commission positively to find a solution to this problem." Asked whether he was pressing for an independent United Nations review, Iraq's U.N. ambassador, Samir Sumaidaie, said he was not, and would not "unless I'm instructed to push for it" by the interim government.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Independent Iraqi Electoral Commission has "a good record of working through these allegations of irregularities and doing so in a manner that meets international standards,” reports the AP. I.L.