Iraqi elections credible, says U.N. official

A senior U.N. official said that Iraq's parliamentary elections were credible and the results should stand, angering Sunni Arabs who have taken to the streets demanding a new vote. The U.N. endorsement, which came Wednesday after opposition groups demanded international intervention, was likely to deflate their calls for the elections to be canceled. It also was likely to move Sunni Arabs and secular Shiites closer to the bargaining table ahead of final results, expected to be announced next week.

Preliminary results, which gave a big lead to the ruling Shiite religious bloc, also indicated that Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, a former Washington insider, will not be re-elected to the new 275-member parliament, his office said. Before the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Chalabi, then living in exile, was a favorite of the U.S. Defense Department and the U.S. Congress. A secular Shiite, he fell from grace after his claims that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction were discredited.

American forces last year raided Chalabi's Baghdad office after he was accused of giving U.S. intelligence to Iran, but the 60-year-old consummate insider had slowly been working his way back. Pegged as a possible prime minister before the Dec. 15 elections, he met last month in Washington with Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The United Nations official, Craig Jenness, said at a news conference organized by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq that his U.N.-led international election assistance team found the elections to be fair.

"The United Nations is of the view that these elections were transparent and credible," said Jenness, a Canadian electoral expert. Jenness said the number of complaints was less than one for every 7,000 voters. About 70 percent of Iraq's 15 million voters went to the polls.

His remarks represented crucial support for Iraqi election commission officials, who refused opposition demands to step down. They, too, said the elections were free and fair and that they would deal with the few instances of fraud and rigging of ballot boxes. "No wide, premeditated and systematic fraud was noticed," IECI official Safwat Rashid said.

The Bush administration and many Iraqi officials hope the elections will lead to a broad-based government that will include minority Sunni Arabs as well as secular Shiites such as former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. "In our view, all communities of Iraq have won in these elections, all will have a strong voice in parliament. We hope the elections will be the start of a new process of strength and unity in Iraq," Jenness said.

One step in that direction came in western Anbar province, where a high-ranking Interior Ministry official made a rare appearance in Ramadi, considered a hot spot for Sunni-led insurgents. Fahqer Maryosh, the No. 3 official in the ministry, met with local and U.S. military officials to discuss the reestablishment of the Iraqi police in the province, Marine Capt. Jeffrey S. Pool said.

In yet another political demonstration, more than 4,000 people rallied Wednesday in Samarra, a predominantly Sunni Arab town 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Baghdad. Demonstrators carried banners reading, "We refuse the election forgery."

Prominent Sunni candidate Saleh al-Mutlaq, who has joined forces with Allawi's secular group to protest what they have described as rampant fraud, said he was angered by Jenness' remarks. He again demanded an independent review of about 1,500 complaints, including 50 or so deemed serious enough to affect the results in some areas.

"The U.N. stand provokes our astonishment because they have not responded to our complaints, which we have submitted," al-Mutlaq told The Associated Press by telephone. "This statement provokes anger and frustration." He said without elaboration that the U.N. should "check our complaints and then express its views." Iraqi officials said they had found some instances of fraud that were enough to cancel the results in some places but not to hold another vote in any district. "After studying all the complaints, and after the manual and electronic audit of samples of ballot boxes in the provinces, the electoral commission will announce within the next few days some decisions about canceling the results in stations where fraud was found," said Abdul Hussein Hendawi, an elections official.

He said fraud was discovered in the provinces of Baghdad, Irbil, Ninevah, Kirkuk, Anbar and Diyala. Allawi said the election commission should also take into account political violence before the vote.

"There were gross intimidations throughout the country, and especially in certain provinces in the south, and Baghdad too, preceding the elections," Allawi told CNN. "There were assassinations. We had numbers of people on my slate who had been killed, shot and killed, and supporters who have been killed. There were attempts to assassinate others, and they were badly injured,” reports the AP. I.L.

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