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Iraqi Officials Deny Forged Ballots Seized at Border

Iraq's interior minister on Wednesday denied published reports that a tanker truck filled with forged ballot papers was seized a day earlier near Iraq's border with Iran. Sectarian tension is increasing before Thursday's all-important parliamentary elections in Iraq.

Interior Minister Bayan Jabr says his ministry received no reports of a tanker being seized by Iraqi border police in the town of Badra, east of Baghdad, after it crossed over from Iran.

The New York Times newspaper reported the seized tanker contained several thousand partly completed ballots. The newspaper said the Iranian driver of the tanker told authorities that at least three other tankers, loaded with forged ballots, had recently entered Iraq from Iran at different border crossings.

The source for the news story was an unnamed official in Mr. Jabr's interior ministry. But the minister dismissed the report as as an attempt to discredit the election process.

Reuters wire agency says that the head of Iraq's border protection force, Lieutenant General Ahmed al-Khafaji, called the report a lie. The interior ministry official then accused Iraq's army intelligence officials of spreading rumors.

The incident further highlights the deepening concern here that Iran is attempting to influence the outcome of Thursday's balloting to elect Iraq's first four-year, post-Saddam government.

Shi'ite Iran is believed to have close links with two of the most powerful Shi'ite parties in the Iraqi interim government, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's Dawa Party and Interior Minister Jabr's Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Both parties are again running in Thursday's elections as part of a powerful Shi'ite coalition, which includes the firebrand, anti-American cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr.

On Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzhad criticized what he said were overt Iranian attempts to interfere in Iraqi internal affairs. He labeled Iran as one of several predatory states in the region with aspirations of establishing hegemony.

Sunni Arab politician Saleh Mutlak says even the perception that there had been outside interference in the elections will have a serious negative impact on how Iraqis view and accept the results.

"There will be a weak Iraq for a long time, a very weak Iraq and this is going to be very bad for the world as a whole. This is not [an] Iraq which can be stable," he said.

About 15 million Iraqis are expected to vote at 33,000 polling stations Thursday, including millions of Sunni Arabs who boycotted elections in January.

Iraq's election commission says more than 6,600 candidates are running for seats in the 275-member national assembly. Baghdad is the biggest electoral district with 59 seats up for grabs.