Iraqi officials Monday concluded an inquiry into allegations of widespread fraud in the Dec. 15 elections by annulling returns from fewer than 1% of the ballot boxes, and said the action was unlikely to alter the overall result.
The ruling by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq failed to placate secular and Sunni Arab parties that are set to form a minority in the 275-seat parliament. They had claimed that they were cheated by systematic intimidation of voters and tampering with ballot boxes.
Although the inquiry verified isolated examples of such irregularities, "the level of fraud was small," Hussein Hindawi, a commission member, said in rejecting the complaining parties' demand for a rerun of the election. "It's a question of maybe one, two or three seats."
Hindawi echoed a judgment of United Nations observers that the election was generally transparent and credible. The official Iraqi ruling paved the way for a release of complete returns in the coming days -- the next step in a laborious process of forming Iraq's first long-term government since the U.S.-led ouster of Saddam Hussein nearly three years ago.
It will take a two-thirds majority in the new parliament to form a government and appoint an executive branch that will lead Iraq for four years. Near-complete returns have indicated that the Shiite Muslim alliance running the interim government will win slightly less than half the seats in parliament. Kurdish and Sunni blocs are each expected to get about 20% of the seats. Nearly 10% will go to a ticket led by Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite.
Hoping to undermine the Sunni-led insurgency, U.S. officials are pressing all parties to join in forming a broad-based government with a significant role for the Sunnis, who a year ago boycotted the previous election of a parliament. But the fraud allegations have threatened to taint the legitimacy of the December vote, making such a consensus more difficult to achieve.
The commission's ruling Monday, in a report that Hindawi read at a news conference, threw out returns from 227 of the nearly 32,000 ballot boxes.
Ali Timimi, a spokesman for the complaining parties, dismissed the report as a cover-up.
"There was systematic forgery all over Iraq, not just in these 227 ballot boxes," he said. "It was well organized."
Hindawi said he and other election officials had sifted through 1,985 complaints but found just 58 allegations of "red violations" -- instances of tampering that could alter the tally in one or more of the ballot boxes.
All 58 allegations were investigated and most were proved, he said, leading to the annulment of ballot boxes from scattered polling places in the ethnically mixed cities of Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul; the city of Irbil in the Kurdish region; the largely Sunni provinces of Salahuddin, Diyala and Al Anbar; and the Shiite-dominated southern city of Basra.
Results from entire polling stations, with several ballot boxes each, were thrown out in Baghdad and Diyala, he said. Fifty-three boxes across Iraq and several set up for absentee voting by Iraqis in Turkey were invalidated after being found stuffed with more ballots than voters registered to cast them, he added.
The commission upheld two complaints of partisan interference in the hand-counting of ballots -- in largely Shiite Dhi Qar province and in Diyala -- but rejected five similar complaints elsewhere. It threw out two complaints of alleged tampering with ballot boxes as they were being trucked from polling places to provincial capitals.
Hindawi's report did not cast partisan blame for any of the confirmed fraud.
Most of the complaints had come from Sunni leader Saleh Mutlak's Iraqi National Dialogue Front, a second Sunni bloc led by the Iraqi Islamic Party, and Allawi's Iraqi National List.
Mutlak said the commission should have called for new elections on the basis of what it found.
"If they discovered 227 cases of forgery, it means there could have been a lot more," he said. "The falsifiers should be punished. We don't want a group of dishonest people sitting in parliament."
Safiya Suhail, a candidate on the Allawi slate, said the commission did not study all the complaints her group presented.
Hindawi conceded as much at his news conference but said the bulk of the allegations were about irregularities that could not have affected the vote. Rather than widespread intimidation, for example, the commission confirmed just one case of "violent interference" with voters -- by police in Kirkuk.
The complaining parties said they would put more stock in a parallel inquiry by a Jordan-based group, the International Mission for Iraqi Elections, which is expected to issue its report Thursday. But that group, which has no power to alter results, has previously said the Iraqi vote appeared to have "generally met international standards."
Hindawi said final unofficial results could be announced as early as Friday. After that, more complaints may be lodged, and it could take up to two weeks to study them. Certified final results would then be announced, probably early next month, clearing the way for negotiations in earnest over a the shape of a government.
Times staff writers Saif Rasheed and Suhail Ahmad and special correspondent Asmaa Waguih contributed to this report.