Iraqi elections avoid violence, but complaints about procedures loom
BAGHDAD — Passing through razor-wire cordons and police checkpoints, Iraqi voters Saturday took another step in the nation's quest for stability in provincial elections that were carried off without major violence but tarnished by claims of flaws and threats of challenges.
Even before a single ballot was counted, Iraqi officials were basking in the successes — watching millions of voters wave the purple-tinted fingers that have become symbols of the country's hopes for a workable democracy.
But election observers and others were examining a growing list of complaints, including claims that hundreds of people — perhaps more — were wrongly omitted from voting lists in areas across Iraq.
"There was huge amount of confusion," said Afram Yakoub, a Belgium-based election monitor who visited polling sites in the Mosul area in northern Iraq. "Names were on the center voter registry but did not appear on the [polling] station registry."
The leader of the second largest Sunni bloc in parliament, Saleh al-Mutlaq, accused the Shiite-led government of a deliberate campaign to keep the minority Sunnis "on the sidelines."
It was unclear whether the alleged problems were isolated or could cast doubts on the entire election.
But any political bitterness could further complicate another difficult task ahead for Iraq's leaders: getting hundreds of factions to accept the results as credible and then start hammering out alliances from among 14,000 candidates for the influential regional posts.
The overall picture, however, was close to the goals set by Iraqi officials trying to portray a sense of order and confidence nearly six years after the U.S.-led invasion.
A vast security operation faced no major confrontations or attacks. Meanwhile, Sunni groups — which boycotted provincial elections four years ago — were deeply involved in the election.
"The purple fingers have come back to build Iraq again," said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a nationwide address shortly after the polls closed — referring to the ink used to identify those who cast ballots.
A senior Sunni leader in the western Anbar province — where former anti-insurgent militias were seeking political gains — alleged that voters couldn't reach polling stations because of the traffic ban and others in Fallujah found the door shut.
"We expect fraud ... Some will try to fill these blank ballots," said Sheik Dari al-Arsan. "We will complain about these violations."
In the southern Shiite city of Basra, voter Hadi Thegil stared angrily at election workers when he was told he wasn't on the registration list, which is compiled using information form Iraq's ration card system. He left muttering: "I feel robbed."
In Karmah, about 50 miles west of Baghdad, local election observer Sabah Hussein said he found ballots marked in advance for the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni bloc that's a partner in al-Maliki's government. It was unclear whether any others were cast.
But a U.N. election observer, Said Arikat, described the election in mostly positive terms.
"By and large, the rules were followed. We weren't aware of any confusion in the stations we visited. I am sure there will be complaints, and I'm not sure you can guard against a total absence of such complaints."
A Shiite lawmaker, Nassir al-Saadi, also found the election process generally good, but noted the real test is yet to come: how the major political bloc perceive the outcome.
"The only real gauge whether the election is credible or not is the results," he said. "If the results are fair then we can say the election was fair."
Results are not expected before Tuesday.
It will be a huge job sorting it all out. A total of 440 seats are at stake on the various provincial councils in the election — covering the whole country expect four northern areas.
Turnout figures were not immediately available for the 15 million eligible voters. Election workers at various sites around the country reported steady streams of voters but few huge crowds, and voting was extended for one hour.
In some parts of Baghdad, checkpoints were spaced 30 yards apart and Iraqi security forces, including special forces in combat gear, conducted foot patrols.
There were reports of isolated violence and unrest.
Hundreds of Iraqi Kurds stormed an election office in the disputed northern city of Khanaqin after claiming many of them were not on voting lists. There were no reports of serious injuries. The incident was part of lingering disputes between Kurds and the Arab-run central government over control of the city near the Iranian border.
In Kurdish autonomous region — which is scheduled to hold elections later — special polling sites were created for Iraqis who have sought refuge from violence in other parts of Iraq. "I hope the real winner will be Iraq itself," said Mohammad Rasid, 75, who fled Baghdad two years ago.
"I came to take back my city for Sunnis," said Afifa Abdul-Nafaa, 81, who came to vote in a wheelchair pushed by her son.
And in Iraq's Shiite south, loyalists to prime minister al-Maliki appeared to receive a boost from the offensives last year that broke the hold of Shiite militias in the key city of Basra and other places.
Zakiya Tahir, a 71-year-old woman who cannot read, pointed to a poster of a local candidate supported by al-Maliki.