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Iraq's Shi'ite Coalition Rejects Allegations of Election Fraud

Shiite Politicians Saturday rejected calls by Sunni Arabs in Iraq for a new election. Thousands of Sunnis marched yesterday in Baghdad to protest what they say was a rigged December 15 vote for Iraq's new four-year parliament.

Leading Shiite politicians offered to create a unity government with the disgruntled Sunnis during a press conference today in Baghdad's Green Zone. But they also stood firm in their insistence that there would be no repeat of the election.

Sunni Muslims accuse the large Shi'ite coalition known as the United Iraqi Alliance, of rigging votes and intimidating Sunni voters. The demonstration Friday in Baghdad attracted thousands of Sunnis, who called for a new round of voting. They also threatened to boycott the new parliament if an international body did not review the election results. The United Nations rejected the request, Reuters News Agency reported.

Reacting to the Sunni accusations, one senior Shi'ite party member, Joad al-Malaki, said "Many people who reject the election... support terrorism. If they feel the need to destabilize the situation, this is part of the terrorism".

Mr. al-Maliki's statement was apparently aimed at hints from Sunni politicians that violence would continue in Iraq if the alleged irregularities are not investigated.

But other non-Sunni and secular groups also called for an investigation into the election results, including the coalition headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite.

The debate over the votes comes as the Iraqi Electoral Commission released preliminary election results over the past week. The results showed the conservative Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance leading with 59 percent of the vote in Baghdad, the province with the largest number of electoral seats.

The electoral commission says it is investigating more than 1,000 cases of election fraud, but says only a few dozen of those are serious.

United Iraqi Alliance member Hussein Sharastani emphasized the finality of the vote Saturday, and encouraged the Sunnis and others to move forward. "There is no way to return to the results of the election", he said. "Now we are thinking of forming the next government."

The accusations of voting irregularities came as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced Friday that U.S. force levels in Iraq will fall by around 7,000 troops by next spring. He said two U.S. Army brigades will not be sent to Iraq as scheduled.

Speaking to U.S. forces in Mosul Saturday, Mr. Rumsfeld called the conflict in Iraq a "test of wills" and said most Iraqis support U.S. efforts in the country.

The overall commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, General George Casey, said Friday that U.S. force levels in Iraq would reach the new deployment mark of about 130,000 troops by March, 2006.