Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Iraqi poll irregularities under scrutiny

Tuesday 18 October 2005 10:05 AM GMT

Unusually high vote totals in some areas have rasied concerns Iraq's election commission has started checking ballot boxes for possible irregularities, while flights bringing ballot boxes to Baghdad for the count have resumed after sandstorms subsided.

The ballot boxes were being taken to Baghdad on Tuesday to be checked by election officials investigating "unusually high" vote totals in areas said to be predominantly Shia and Kurdish provinces, where as many as 99% of the voters reportedly approved Iraq's draft constitution. The investigation by Iraq's election commission, which was announced on Monday, has raised the possibility that the results of the referendum could be called into question.

"The sandstorm ended Monday night, ballots boxes are now arriving here again from the provinces, and our employees have resumed their counting," said Adil al-Lami, head of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq.

"If we suspect that the numbers are higher or lower than we expected, we have to double-check them, and this audit means it might be several more days before we announce the final outcome," he said. "We are not concerned whether the outcome is 'yes' or 'no'. We are only interested in making the process technically a success." He said the commission was a neutral body acting as a referee.

Questions about irregularities

The investigation by the commission has raised questions about irregularities in the balloting. Word of the review came on Monday as Sunni Arab leaders repeated accusations of fraud after initial reports from the provinces suggested the constitution had passed.

Among the allegations are that police took ballot boxes from heavily "no" districts and that some "yes" areas had more votes than registered voters. The electoral commission made no mention of fraud, and an official with knowledge of the election process cautioned that it was too early to say whether the unusual numbers were incorrect or would affect the outcome.

But questions about the numbers raised tensions over Saturday's referendum, which has sharply divided Iraqis. Most of the Shia and the Kurds - the coalition that controls the government - support the charter, while most Sunni Arabs sharply opposed a document they fear will tear Iraq to pieces.

Irregularities in Shia and Kurdish areas, expected to vote strongly "yes", may not affect the outcome.

Doubts

The main electoral battlegrounds were provinces with mixed populations, two of which went strongly "yes". There were conflicting reports whether those two provinces were among those with questionable figures. At Baghdad's counting centre, election workers were cutting open plastic bags of tally sheets sent by plane and helicopter from provincial stations.

Nearby, more workers, dressed in white T-shirts and caps bearing the election commission's slogan, are sitting behind computer screens punching in the numbers. Election officials in many provinces have released their initial counts, indicating that the charter has been approved.

But the commission found that the number of yes votes in most provinces appeared unusually high and would be audited, with random samples taken from ballot boxes to test them. The high numbers were seen among the nine provinces of the south and the three in the north, al-Lami said.

Up to 98% say yes

Those provinces reported to AP yes votes above 90%, with some as high as 97% and 98%. Two provinces that are crucial to the results - Ninevah and Diyala, which have mixed Sunni, Shia and Kurd populations - were not among those that appeared unusual.

But the official with knowledge of the counting process said the unexpected results were not isolated to the Shia and Kurdish provinces and were "all around the country".

Sunni opponents needed to win over either Diyala or Ninevah to veto the constitution. Sectarian balance unknown Sunnis had to get a two-thirds no vote in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces to defeat the charter, and they appeared to have got it in western Anbar and central Salah al-Din, both Sunni. Ninevah and Diyala are each believed to have a slight Sunni Arab majority.

But results reported by provincial electoral officials indicated startlingly powerful yes votes of up to 70% in each. Allegations of fraud in those areas could throw the final outcome into question. But questions of whether the reported strong yes vote there is unusual are complicated by the fact Iraq has not had a proper census in 15 years, meaning the sectarian balance is not firmly known.

AP
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Election officials also queried US assertions - later retracted - that the draft constitution was likely to be approved. During her visit to London last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said initial information from the field indicated the constitution would be backed. Hussein Hindawi, an official at the commission, said he was "surprised" by the statement. "As far as I know, she does not work at the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI)," Mr Hindawi added. Karina Parelli, head of the United Nations Election Assistance Team in Iraq, also questioned Ms Rice's comments.
"Unless Rice is more well-informed than the IECI, thus far there is no way to know the turnout percentages or the results of the voting," she said. Storm The IECI said votes in several governorates required "re- examination, comparison and verification because they are relatively high compared with international averages for elections".
The commission said in some areas nearly all votes indicated a "yes", and in others a "no", and that in such circumstances the ballots would have to be audited, in line with international practice. The count was also disrupted by a sandstorm that blew up in central Iraq, preventing ballots from being flown to Baghdad for counting and slowing their progress on the roads.
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CONSTITUTION'S KEY POINTS
Iraq to be federal, parliamentary democracy
Official languages to be Arabic and Kurdish
Official religion to be Islam but religious freedoms guaranteed
Equal rights for all Independent judiciary
Elections every four years
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The result was originally expected later this week, but the electoral commission warned it might now be put back several days. On Sunday, unofficial results leaked out suggesting that the referendum would be endorsed. There were indications that Shia and Kurdish areas had voted heavily for the constitution, while opponents may have got the upper hand in only two of Iraq's provinces, not the three they need to veto the charter.
The Associated Press cited an anonymous official saying that heavily Sunni Anbar and central Salahuddin provinces had rejected the treaty by the required two-thirds. But Ninevah and Diyala provinces, which are thought to have slight Sunni majorities, appeared to have voted in favour. Saleh al-Mutlaq, a prominent Sunni Arab politician, alleged vote-rigging in Diyala, saying soldiers had removed ballot boxes and that there had been more votes cast than registered electors.
'Peaceful process'
There was international approval that the vote went ahead relatively peacefully, and that turnout was high, even in Sunni areas where some groups urged a boycott. US President George W Bush called the high participation "a positive development", and said it showed that "people are willing to try to work out their political differences through a process, a peaceful process".
One place where few people appeared to have voted was Ramadi, west of Baghdad, where militant activity has been high. On the day of the vote, five US soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing in a village near the city. US helicopters and warplanes bombed the same area on Sunday, killing about 70 militants, the US military said, although eye-witnesses said many of the dead were civilians.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/middle_east/4351680.stm Published: 2005/10/18 12:56:54 GMT October 19, 2005
Iraqis Begin Audit of Heavy 'Yes' Vote; May Take 3 Days
By EDWARD WONG
New York Times
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Oct. 18 - With the lifting of a sandstorm, electoral tally sheets from the provinces began arriving here Tuesday by helicopter and airplane as Iraqi officials pushed forward with an audit of the nationwide vote on a new constitution. The electoral officials, on the advice of United Nations observers, said Monday that they were looking into unusually one-sided tallies in 12 of Iraq's 18 provinces, where early returns from the voting on Saturday showed more than 90 percent approval. The provinces in question are dominated by Shiite Arabs or Kurds, who are generally determined to enshrine the document over the opposition of many Sunni Arabs.
Election officials did not release any updated figures on Tuesday, and they insisted that the investigation was standard international practice when tallies for one side or another appeared irregular. There has been no indication that vote fraud was committed, they said. Voter turnout was relatively high, above 60 percent, and the constitution is expected to pass, despite impassioned votes of no in many Sunni Arab areas. "By tomorrow all the tally sheets will have arrived in Baghdad," said Adel al-Lami, director of the electoral commission. "We will try to finish our work three days after receiving all the boxes of tally sheets."
Passage of the constitution is essential for the American- backed political process that the Bush administration is relying on to co-opt the increasingly sophisticated Sunni-led insurgency. If the voters approve it, elections for a full- term government are to be held in mid-December. Some Sunni Arab politicians are accusing the main Shiite and Kurdish parties of ballot-box stuffing, but representatives of those parties vehemently deny that. Mr. Lami said the commission was also scrutinizing complaints about voter rolls.
The vote count occurs in two stages. A preliminary count was done by local electoral officials after the polls closed Saturday evening. They marked up tally sheets that are now being sent to Baghdad. Then a review of the sheets will take place inside the fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad. Transport of the ballots to Baghdad was delayed Monday by a sandstorm that dropped a curtain of dust and grit over much of central Iraq. Helicopters and planes were grounded, and the Baghdad airport shut down. Reports of violence across central and western Iraq emerged early Tuesday.
The American military said two marines and four insurgents were killed Monday in a firefight near the town of Rutba in Anbar Province, the heartland of the insurgency. A soldier was killed early Tuesday in Mosul by small-arms fire. In all, nearly 2,000 Americans have been killed in the war.
A military spokesman said a convoy of Bradley fighting vehicles was ambushed Monday in Salahuddin Province. A roadside bomb exploded and ignited one of the vehicles, wounding eight soldiers and killing an Iraqi interpreter, said the spokesman, Maj. Steven Warren. The soldiers' platoon sergeant, who was aflame, leapt down from the turret and opened the rear hatch to save his men, but suffered third- degree burns on 65 percent of his body. The deputy governor of Anbar, Talib al-Dulaimi, was fatally shot Tuesday by insurgents outside the provincial government center in Ramadi. Though the area around the center is heavily patrolled by the Marines, guerrillas operate with impunity throughout Ramadi.
Violence resulted in abysmal voter turnout there on Saturday. "The insurgents are against progress and only desire a return to the ways of the seventh century," the Marines said in a statement. In Baghdad, armed men fatally shot a senior Industry Ministry official, Ayed Abdul-Ghani Yousif. Hours later a mortar shell landed on a downtown Baghdad house, killing a civilian. Also, gunmen killed a police officer, Lt. Maj. Sami Kredi Attaya, an Interior Ministry official said. Gunmen killed an Iraqi Army soldier and a civilian in the oil city of Kirkuk, a police official said.
In nearby Hawija, a roadside bomb exploded near an American patrol, killing an Iraqi civilian. In Balad, a mostly Shiite town in the Sunni triangle northwest of Baghdad, police officials said they had found the bodies of six poultry factory workers who had belonged to the Mahdi Army, the militia of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, Reuters reported. The men, whose bodies were discovered at the bottom of a river, disappeared two weeks ago, relatives said.
On Monday evening, around the town of Hilla, armed men attacked Al Rahman Mosque and killed one worshiper as people prepared to break the daily fast observed during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The men may have been going after members of the Iraqi Islamic Party who were leading the prayers, a local police spokesman said. The party, a prominent Sunni Arab group, broke ranks with hard-line Sunni Arabs last week to endorse the constitution after last-minute compromises with Shiite and Kurdish politicians. The American military and Iraqi government readied security forces in central Baghdad on Tuesday for the trial of Saddam Hussein and several of his top aides, to take place on Wednesday. Mr. Hussein faces charges stemming from the executions of more than 140 men and teenage boys in the mostly Shiite town of Dujail.
An Internet posting in the name of Mr. Hussein's Baath Party appeared Tuesday on a Web site that often carries pro- insurgent messages. The posting condemned the trial as illegitimate and said Mr. Hussein would take the opportunity to judge the Americans and their allies. "The dear leader Saddam Hussein al-Majeed will stand on the 19th of this month with glory, truth and defiance, as a struggling leader and a jihadist resister and as a patriotic Iraqi and an Arab nationalist," the message said, using a formal version of Mr. Hussein's name. "He will stand as a representative of all dignified Iraqis and free Arabs, and of honest humanity. He will prosecute, expose and convict American imperialism and the vicious Zionist coalition."
Khalid al-Ansary contributed reporting from Baghdad for this article, Sabrina Tavernise from Ramadi and Kirk Semple from Baquba.

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