Shiites ready to talk; Sunnis protest vote
About 1,500 complaints have been lodged about Iraq's election.
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq's leading Shiite religious bloc said Friday it is ready to discuss Sunni Arab participation in a coalition government, while thousands of Sunnis and some secular Shiites demonstrated in the streets claiming election fraud.
Reacting to growing protests over the Dec. 15 ballot for a new parliament, Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari urged Iraqis to have faith in the electoral process. He made the call after meeting with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who announced the first of a possible series of U.S. combat troop reductions next year.
Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein's chief Iraqi lawyer, Khalil Dulaimia, claimed he saw evidence his client was beaten by American guards. The United States has strenuously denied mistreating him, and the Iraqi judge who investigated Saddam said that before the ousted leader made the charge in court this week he had always said "no" when asked if he had been abused.
About 20,000 people took part in a mass demonstration organized by 35 Sunni Arab and secular Shiite political parties after Friday prayers.
Many people outside the governing Shiite religious-oriented political bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, allege last week's elections were unfair to Sunni Arab and secular Shiite groups.
"We refuse the cheating and forgery in the elections," read one banner at the protest in southern Baghdad.
More than 2,000 people also demonstrated in Mosul, where some accused Iran of having a hand in election fraud. About 1,000 people demonstrated in Tikrit, Saddam's hometown.
Sunni Arab and secular Shiite factions are demanding that an international body review the fraud complaints, warning that they may boycott the new legislature. The United Nations rejected an outside review.
The demand was issued after preliminary returns indicated the United Iraqi Alliance was getting bigger-than-expected majorities in Baghdad, which has large numbers of secular Shiites and Sunnis.
About 1,500 complaints have been lodged about the elections, including 40 or so that the Iraqi election commission said are serious enough to change the results in certain areas.
The protesting groups have demanded the disbandment of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, accusing it of covering up ballot box stuffing and fraud.
The prime minister defended the commission Friday, saying the government does not meddle in its affairs.
"Our victory as a government, our real victory, is that the election process included all political groups," al-Jaafari said. "Those who have complaints should contribute to this feeling and to be confident that their complaints will be listened to."
Religious parties based in Iraq's Shiite majority called on Sunni Arabs to accept the election results and consider joining a coalition government after the final results are released in early January.
"We are very close to our Sunni brothers, more than other groups, and with them we can form a national unity government," said Bahaa al-Din al-Araji, a senior member of the United Iraqi Alliance.
"These results reflect Iraqi reality and they have to accept this reality," he added.
The U.S. Embassy has said it is in the Iraqis' interest to create a broad-based government.
Political councilor Robert Ford said he was heartened by strong voter turnout in places such as the Sunni-dominated western province of Anbar, where more than 50 percent voted last week compared to just 2 percent in last January's election of an interim legislature.
"There is real progress, there is something to build on even in the most hard Sunni Arab places such as Anbar. We would like a government that capitalized on that and which fosters a sense of national reconciliation," Ford said.
Washington hopes broader political participation will weaken support among Sunni Arabs for the Sunni-dominated insurgency, which would strengthen security and allow U.S. troops to begin leaving.
Rumsfeld said President Bush had authorized new cuts below the 138,000-soldier level that has prevailed for most of this year.
He did not reveal a specific figure, but the top military commander in Iraq and the U.S. ambassador said in a statement that it would involve two combat brigades, or about 7,000 soldiers.
"That will bring down the total level from 17 brigades to 15," Gen. George Casey and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said.
They said the decision is an "indication of the remarkable progress Iraq is making. It clearly demonstrates the dramatic increase in capabilities of the Iraqi Security Forces."
The U.S. military said two American soldiers were killed Friday when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Baghdad. It also reported a bomb killed another soldier in the capital Thursday. No other details were released.
Gunmen attacked an Iraqi army checkpoint in the city of Adhaim in religiously and ethnically mixed Diyala province, killing eight soldiers and wounding 17, an Iraqi army officer said on condition he not be identified for fear of reprisal.
In Balad Ruz, 45 miles northeast of Baghdad, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives belt outside a Shiite mosque, killing four people and wounding eight, police said. Among the dead was a policeman guarding the mosque.
Associated Press writers Jason Straziuso and Robert Burns in Baghdad and Antonio Castaneda in Balad contributed to this report.