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SITE In The News
Religious Groups Take Early Lead in Iraqi Ballots
By Edward Wong
Published in: New York Times
December 20, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Dec. 19 - Early voting results announced by Iraqi electoral officials on Monday, with nearly two-thirds of the ballots counted, indicated that religious groups, particularly the main Shiite coalition, had taken a commanding lead. The secular coalition led by Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister, had won only meager support in crucial provinces where it had expected to do well, including Baghdad.

The front-runner among Sunni Arab voters was a religious coalition whose leaders have advocated resistance to the American military and have demanded that President Bush set a timetable for withdrawing the American military from Iraq.

The preliminary results accounted for more than 90 percent of votes cast in 11 of Iraq's 18 provinces. About 7 million ballots have been counted, of an estimated turnout of 11 million in the vote on Thursday for a full, four-year government, electoral officials said.

Officials warned that the results could still change. The Iraqi electoral commission has received 692 complaints of campaign violations or voter fraud, at least 20 of which are considered potentially serious enough to "affect specific election results," said Adel al-Lami, the commission's chief electoral officer. Several candidates, including Mr. Allawi, have angrily accused the main Shiite coalition of underhanded tactics, such as tearing down posters and ordering police officers to campaign for it.

The early election results gave strong indications that Iraqis cast their ballots based on sectarian or ethnic allegiances, as in the elections in January for a transitional government. The results also indicated that much of the electorate is staunchly religious, even though many experts once believed that the country had a large secular middle class.

The early results for Baghdad Province, the most diverse in the country, provided the strongest indication of the religious nature of the voting. With 89 percent of the ballots here counted, the main Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, had won 1.4 million votes, or 59 percent. The runner-up was the Iraqi Consensus Front, the main religious Sunni Arab coalition, with 19 percent. Mr. Allawi's secular coalition, the Iraqi List, was third, at 14 percent.

Another prominent secular candidate, Ahmad Chalabi, the former Pentagon favorite, won less than a half of 1 percent of the vote in Baghdad, possibly denying him a seat in the Council of Representatives.

Fifty-nine of the 275 seats in the council are up for grabs in Baghdad, more than in any other province.

The results come as a blow to Mr. Allawi, a White House favorite, and his fellow candidates, who had expected to win broad support in Baghdad. In the province that is home to Basra, the country's second largest city, Mr. Allawi won only 11 percent; in Sunni-dominated Salahuddin Province, he had 14 percent. Mr. Allawi had been hoping that growing discontent with the transitional government, which is led by religious Shiite parties, and the earnest participation of Sunni Arab voters would get him more support than he had in January, when his group won only 40 of 275 seats in the transitional assembly.

Mr. Allawi has filed formal complaints against the Shiite coalition, accusing it of campaign malfeasance and vote fraud. "We're waiting for their response to the violations and falsifications," Saad al-Janabi, a candidate in Mr. Allawi's coalition, said of the electoral commission. "We're asking for the United Nations, the United States and international groups to intervene at once."

An important question is whether the Sunni Arab parties will be invited to join in the new government. They disagree with the religious Shiites on fundamental issues like whether autonomous regions should exist and how oil revenues should be distributed. If the Sunnis are denied their say, that could further inflame the insurgency and possibly undermine plans to draw down the 160,000 American troops here.

Until all the ballots are counted, it will be impossible to determine exactly how many seats each political group will get. The number of seats will dictate what alliances the parties will make as they negotiate to form a government, which requires a two-thirds vote of the Parliament. The early results show that the Shiite coalition will again be at the center of the negotiations because it will almost certainly win more than a third of the seats, giving it veto power over any proposed government.

Mr. Allawi still has a slim chance of cobbling together a government if he can unite with the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds, and pull away some religious Shiites. That task would undoubtedly be made more difficult, though, by a poor showing and by the influence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq, who has fought hard to put the religious Shiite parties in power.

After a lull around the elections, violence flared across parts of Iraq on Monday. A car bomb exploded near an Iraqi police patrol in Baghdad, killing at least two civilians and wounding at least eight others, including four policemen, an Interior Ministry official said. Gunmen fired on a convoy carrying the deputy governor of Baghdad, Tarik al-Zawbai, killing three bodyguards and wounding Mr. Zawbai, another guard and a pedestrian, the official said.

The American military said a marine was killed Sunday by small-arms fire in Ramadi, the insurgent-rife capital of Anbar Province.

The Islamic Army in Iraq, a Baathist militant group, released a six-second video showing what it claimed to be the killing of Ronald Alan Schulz, 40, an American security contractor abducted earlier this month, according to the SITE Institute, which tracks insurgent postings. Because the victim has his back to the camera in the video, it is impossible to identify him.

In its announcement on Monday, the electoral commission did not release early numbers for several provinces with significant Sunni populations, except for Salahuddin.

The main Kurdish coalition overwhelmingly dominated the three northern Kurdish provinces, as did the main Shiite coalition in the south.

"I feel sorry for some lists," said Hadi al-Amiri, a senior member of the Shiite coalition. "I hope they get at least one seat. This election shows who has support and foundations on the ground."

But protests against the Shiite-led government erupted in some southern cities on Monday, after Mr. Chalabi, a vice prime minister, announced Sunday that the government was cutting back on its consumer fuel subsidies. The price of one liter of leaded gasoline has increased to the equivalent of 10 cents from 3˝ cents. Free-market economists say the subsidies have drained the government's budget, and smugglers have been selling the cheap gas for enormous profits in neighboring countries.


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