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Ballot Counting in Iraq Delayed by Complaints

Voters in Iraq went to the polls more than a week ago. But the final vote count has been delayed by numerous complaints from candidates and parties, accusing Iraqi officials of failing to hold fair elections. The most serious allegations have emerged from violence-plagued areas in the north of the country, where religious and ethnic tensions are simmering.

An exhausted-looking Iraqi electoral commission official told reporters on Monday that Iraqis would have to wait a few more days to get the final results of the country's first democratic elections in more than 50 years.

Iraqis went to the polls on January 30 to choose a new 275-member transitional national assembly, as well as council members for each of Iraq's 18 provinces.

Speaking through an interpreter, the electoral commissioner, Izzedine al-Mahmoudi, asked for patience, as officials look into complaints that a large number of Iraqis were unable to vote on election day.

"The commission council discussed all these violations and now we're going to take the necessary decisions concerning these violations and we will inform the Iraqi people about the result," he said.

The commission has already acknowledged several major irregularities, concentrated in and around the volatile northern city of Mosul, which has a mix of Sunni Arab, Kurdish, Christian, and Turkmen populations.

Following an investigation, the commission says it has determined that more than 15,000 people in the town of Bartala, near Mosul, could not vote because the polling centers remained closed. The commission says the threat of violence by Sunni militants there on election day kept poll workers from reporting for duty.

Commission officials also say that in several other towns in the area, gunmen looted polling stations and stole ballots, depriving people of the chance to vote.

But some Iraqi candidates and political parties maintain that the scope and seriousness of the problems in and around Mosul are far greater than what the electoral commission has so far acknowledged.

Yonadam Kanna headed a slate of mostly Assyrian Christian candidates in the elections. He charges, for example, in at least four districts in Mosul, which has a combined population of some 120,000 Christians, election workers did not properly protect and seal ballot boxes.

Mr. Kanna says many boxes from polling centers in these districts were subsequently found with broken seals, forcing the local polling commission to discard the ballot sheets in those boxes.

"The election commission of Mosul decided to cancel all these votes, which means we lost all the votes of that region,” he said. “So, this is a very, very bad sign there. They have buried democracy with the birth of democracy in Iraq. I'm sorry to say that."

Similar charges of electoral mismanagement and negligence in Iraq's third largest city have also been lodged by Sunni-Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and some smaller ethnic groups.

One of the first public complaints came from Iraq's Interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni-Arab from Mosul. The president, who headed a largely Sunni-Arab candidates list in the elections, told reporters last week that he believed tens of thousands of people in that city could not vote because not enough ballots were delivered to the polling centers.

Mr. Yawer implied the ballot shortage cost him the votes of many Sunni-Arabs in Mosul. His slate has been faring poorly in the vote count nationally.

The leader of another largely Sunni-Arab party, Mishan al-Jabouri, says that there were ballot shortages not only in Mosul, but in other predominantly Sunni-Arab cities such as Ramadi and Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

Mr. Jabouri, whose party is trailing Shi'ite-led parties in the vote count in Tikrit, alleges the ballot shortage was part of a plot by some electoral commissioners to disenfranchise Sunni-Arabs and to silence them politically.

"I think there is people who tried to push the Arab Sunni to don't be in the election. A lot of places in Iraq, especially Mosul, the people don't have enough ballots in some place and another place, there are no boxes. There is a problem. And we need to solve this problem," he said.

Mr. Jabouri says an international commission should be appointed to investigate the Mosul complaints and demands that another election be held there.

Mr. Kanna of the Assyrian Christian Party argues that if the electoral commission can not rectify the problems, balloting results could give rise to a national assembly and provincial councils with skewed demographic representation. That, he warns, could worsen tensions, not only in Mosul, but throughout the country.

"We ask them to be transparent, to tell the public what happened, and they have to give the right for people to vote again," said Mr. Kanna.

The Iraqi electoral commission denies any move to disenfranchise voters. It blames Iraq's precarious security situation for many of the mistakes made on election day. Election officials add that they still believe the vast majority of Iraqis think the elections were a success.

The commission has also ruled out the possibility of holding another election in Mosul, saying there is no procedure for repeating the vote.