Iraq releases early election results

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As the first, incomplete results from Iraq’s weekend elections trickled in Thursday, a prominent opposition group supported mostly by Sunni Arabs made fraud allegations that could taint the legitimacy of the outcome.

The partial tally from five of Iraq’s 18 provinces showed the coalition headed by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki taking the lead in two mostly Shiite Muslim southern provinces, Najaf and Babil, while the secular Iraqiya bloc led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi was ahead in two mostly Sunni provinces, Diyala and Salahuddin. The Kurdish Alliance was winning comfortably in the Kurdish province of Irbil.

But with only 17% to 30% of the votes counted in each of those provinces, the results are inconclusive. No party is expected to win an outright majority nationally, and the bloc that forms the next government probably will have to do so in coalition with other parties.

The tight race increases the importance of an accurate vote count and distribution of seats in the 325-member legislature.

Maliki is expected to do well in the nine majority Shiite provinces of the south, with Allawi dominating the vote in the four mainly Sunni provinces of the north and center. The strength of Maliki’s lead in Babil and Najaf suggested that his faction may be set to win the most seats in parliament. However, the vote in mixed Baghdad, which elects 68 lawmakers, will be crucial in determining the eventual winner.

The planned release of preliminary nationwide results was delayed, election officials said, by a glitch that caused computers processing the ballots to crash two or three times this week. The delays have fed allegations of fraud that could undermine acceptance of the outcome of the vote, especially among Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority.

Senior officials in Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc, comprising mostly Sunnis and secularists, said at a news conference that the elections had been unfair from the outset because of the banning of hundreds of candidates, and that “violations” were continuing as the count proceeded.

The officials alleged that ballot boxes had been left behind at polling centers in Iraqiya strongholds so that they wouldn’t be counted, and they showed reporters one of nine ballotsmarked for the Iraqiya slate that they said had been found discarded in the yard of a school used as a polling center in the northern city of Kirkuk.

They also said three vote counters had been fired after they were caught altering results being entered into the computerized tally system, and that a senior official in Maliki’s coalition, Haidar Ebadi, had made an unauthorized visit Wednesday to the counting center. The officials said they did not know how widespread the alleged fraud might be.

“The votes of Iraqiya are being thrown in the trash and we don’t know how much tampering is going on,” said Adnan Janabi, one of the bloc’s officials. “One or a million we don’t know.”

Faraj Haidari, the head of the election commission, confirmed that three vote counters had been fired Wednesday, but said it was because they were found to be too slow. “We didn’t do it because of fraud,” he said.

He said Ebadi had visited the election commission headquarters, but that he did not enter the area where votes were being counted.

An official with the United Nations, which is advising on the elections, acknowledged that the delay in releasing comprehensive results risked drawing allegations of malpractice, but said that no significant fraud had been detected.

“There’s a lot of distrust anyway, but we don’t see anything sinister or fraudulent or conspiratorial. It’s all explainable, but it has slowed the process down,” said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter and requested anonymity.

Ahmad Chalabi, a candidate with the Shiite Iraqi National Alliance, which appears to be trailing Maliki in the south, also expressed concern about the transparency of the vote count, and visited the election commission headquarters to convey his concerns.

Times staff writer Caesar Ahmed contributed to this report.