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Tensions Increase as Iraqis Await Election Results

The Iraqi Electoral Commission is expected next week to announce results of investigations into reported voting irregularities in Iraq's December 15 national election. But it may take several more weeks before the commission and an international certifying organization announce final results of the vote. Iraqi political leaders are already making demands and threats, and U.S. military officials warn that violence could escalate.

Despite hopes that Sunni Muslim participation in the Iraqi elections would reduce tension in Iraq, violence has increased over the past two weeks.

Most Sunnis, who make up about 20 percent of the population in Iraq but held power under Saddam Hussein's regime, sat out last year's first parliamentary election and the constitutional referendum.

But after participating widely in last month's parliamentary election, many Sunni leaders were angry when preliminary results showed the Shi'ite majority, largely represented by the Islamist United Iraqi Alliance, would dominate the country's parliament. Preliminary results show the UIA won about 130 of the 275 seats in parliament.

Some Sunnis, along with secular Shi'ite parties, accused the UIA and the other big winner, the Kurds, of fixing the election. Some of the Sunni protesters even threatened violence if the vote was not repeated. However, the largest Sunni coalition, the Iraqi Accordance Front, did not protest and after a series of meetings among representatives of Iraq's major parties, pledged the next government would be a "unity" government of Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds.

But the agreement did not end the tensions. Some members of the UIA, like Hussein Sharastani, accused some Sunni politicians of encouraging violence to influence the election results.

"The threats by some political groups to use violence to change these results is totally unacceptable, and the UIA is not going to keep quiet if the government fails to protect the population against terrorist threats and attacks," he said.

Sunni protests and threats largely subsided after the Iraqi Election Commission announced that international experts would come to Baghdad to review the results. However, one threat still remains. The UIA, has warned if the U.S, military continues to restrain the Shi'ite-controlled Ministry of the Interior from going after "terrorists," the people, "would have a right to defend themselves." This raises the specter of Shi'ite militias unleashing sectarian violence.

UIA leader Abdul Aziz Al Hakim, told CNN earlier this week the U.S. military's concern about human rights violations is hindering Iraqi efforts to fight terrorists.

On Friday, Hakim got the backing another important Shi'ite leader, radical cleric Muqtada Sadr whose followers have engaged in at least two bloody campaigns against U.S. forces since 2003 and control hundreds of thousands of loyal Shi'ite militiamen. He blamed the U.S. military occupation for the tensions.

"The existence of the occupation forces obstructs the security situation," Sadr said. "And I am ready to help the government, by using my people in demonstrations and protest, to help the government be independent and stable."

A U.S. military spokesman, General Donald Allston, says he does not believe Iraqi forces were being held back from going after insurgents.

"I would tell you that I do not see any additional procedures that have been employed, or I should say additional restrictions or additional requirements that have been levied upon any of the Iraqi Security Forces that would tie their hands," said General Allston. "We do have procedures that we coordinate operations with each other. We give visibility in advance to each other when we're conducting operations. Those things haven't changed and [we] do not see any of the violence that we had last week as a consequence of a relationship with either the Ministry of the Interior or the Ministry of Defense."

Other American officials warn that allowing the Iraqi security forces complete freedom to fight the insurgency without U.S. oversight could endanger the delicate political balance that for now has many Sunnis involved in the political process. The U.S. embassy's political counselor in Baghdad, Robert Ford, emphasized that Shi'ites need to suppress their urge to retaliate for the violence against them. The goal of the insurgents, he said, is to get Shi'ites to fight Sunnis.

"If the goal is to stir up additional civil strife, it is important for all Iraqis to recognize the game, and to unite together to fight it," said Robert Ford.

General Allston says until the new parliament is seated, there may well be more attempts to destabilize the political situation in the country.

"As the newly elected government of Iraq comes together, those committed to seeing democracy fail will see this time of transition as an opportunity to attack the innocent people of Iraq and attempt to discredit and derail the progress of the Iraqi people," he said.

During its first session, the new parliament will select a presidential council, then a prime minster and his cabinet.

Analysts warn that, if the Shi'ites and Kurds do not try to accommodate the Sunnis, the tension and violence in Iraq is likely to increase.