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Rejecting Sunni protests, UN calls Iraq election valid

Focus now shifts to political process

BAGHDAD -- A senior United Nations official said yesterday that Iraq's parliamentary elections were credible and the results should stand, angering Sunni Arabs who have taken to the streets demanding a new vote.

The UN endorsement, which came after opposition groups demanded international intervention, was likely to deflate calls for the elections to be canceled. It also was likely to move Sunni Arabs and secular Shi'ites closer to the bargaining table ahead of final results, expected to be announced next week.

Preliminary results, which gave a big lead to the ruling Shi'ite religious bloc, also indicated that Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, a former Washington insider, will not be reelected to the new 275-member parliament, his office said.

Before the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Chalabi, then living in exile, was a favorite of the Defense Department and the US Congress. A secular Shi'ite, he fell from grace after his claims that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction were discredited.

American forces last year raided Chalabi's Baghdad office after he was accused of giving US intelligence to Iran, but he had slowly been working his way back. Pegged as a possible prime minister before the Dec. 15 elections, he met last month in Washington with Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The United Nations official, Craig Jenness, said at a news conference organized by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq that his UN-led international election assistance team found the elections to be fair.

''The United Nations is of the view that these elections were transparent and credible," said Jenness, a Canadian electoral specialist.

Jenness said the number of complaints was less than 1 for every 7,000 voters. About 70 percent of Iraq's 15 million voters went to the polls.

His remarks were seen as crucial support for Iraqi election commission officials, who refused opposition demands to quit. They, too, said that the elections were free and fair and that they would deal with the few instances of fraud and rigging of ballot boxes.

''No wide, premeditated, and systematic fraud was noticed," commission official Safwat Rashid said.

The Bush administration and many Iraqi officials hope the elections will lead to a broad-based government that will include minority Sunni Arabs as well as secular Shi'ites such as former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi.

''In our view, all communities of Iraq have won in these elections, all will have a strong voice in parliament. We hope the elections will be the start of a new process of strength and unity in Iraq," Jenness said.

One step in that direction came in western Anbar Province, where a high-ranking Interior Ministry official made a rare appearance in Ramadi, considered a hot spot for Sunni-led insurgents.

Fahqer Maryosh, the number three official in the ministry, met with local and US military officials to discuss the reestablishment of the Iraqi police in the province, Marine Captain Jeffrey S. Pool said.

Prominent Sunni candidate Saleh al-Mutlaq, who has joined forces with Allawi's secular group to protest what they have described as rampant fraud, said he was angered by Jenness's remarks. He again demanded an independent review of about 1,500 complaints, including 50 or so deemed serious enough to affect the results in some areas.

''The UN stand provokes our astonishment because they have not responded to our complaints, which we have submitted," Mutlaq said by telephone. ''This statement provokes anger and frustration."

He said without elaboration that the UN should ''check our complaints and then express its views. Iraqi officials said they had found some instances of fraud that were enough to cancel the results in some places but not to hold another vote in any district.

''After studying all the complaints, and after the manual and electronic audit of samples of ballot boxes in the provinces, the electoral commission will announce within the next few days some decisions about canceling the results in stations where fraud was found," said Abdul Hussein Hendawi, an elections official.

He said fraud was found in the provinces of Baghdad, Irbil, Ninevah, Kirkuk, Anbar, and Diyala.

Preliminary results from the vote have shown the governing Shi'ite religious bloc -- the United Iraqi Alliance -- holding a big lead, but one that still would require forming a coalition with other groups.

The Shi'ite bloc held further talks with Kurdish leaders yesterday and said preparations were being made to choose a candidate for prime minister.

Alliance officials have indicated the likely candidates for prime minister are the current prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who heads the Islamic Dawa Party, and Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who belongs to the other main Shi'ite party, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Also yesterday, inmates stormed a prison armory in Baghdad. They killed eight people, including four guards, before being subdued.

Militants released a video of a French engineer kidnapped in Iraq three weeks ago and denounced the ''illegal French presence" in the country, the Arab news channel Al-Arabiya reported. The video, an excerpt of which was aired on the satellite channel, showed the hostage, identified as Bernard Planche, with two armed men on either side of him.

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