Iraq Awaits Final Vote Count

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Under the watch of armed Western security guards and monitors, Iraqi election workers are doing a second count of the country's historic vote, tapping at computer keyboards and sifting through bags of tally sheets.

Papers rustled and scissors snapped as elections employees standing behind a long counter plucked clear bags containing tally sheets from cardboard boxes on Tuesday.

"This is the new future," one election official said at the tallying center inside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.

This is the second phase of the count. On Monday afternoon, workers at polling centers nationwide finished an initial hand count of ballots from more than 5,200 precincts. Tally sheets and the ballots themselves were then trucked to Baghdad under U.S. military escort.

On Tuesday morning, about 200 clerks here began logging data from the tally sheets into laptop computers for what could be the final count. In several shifts, they're working around the clock in the brightly lit room.

Several monitors sat quietly on one side of the room. Surveillance video cameras were installed in the hall, and television monitors showed another room where more tally sheets stuffed in clear plastic boxes were stored.

To make sure the numbers are accurately recorded, figures will be punched into computers twice by different people. A computer program will detect any discrepancies.

The individual ballots themselves are stored in secure warehouses and will only be recounted if the results are contested by political parties or managers of voting stations who have the original figures.

Final results could take up to 10 days, officials said, and they won't be certified until the end of a petitions period to file complaints that's expected to last about two weeks.

It could also be several days before officials announce turnout figures.

Reporters are not allowed to talk to workers at the tallying center.

By Tuesday afternoon, workers had finished logging in results from three of Iraq's 18 provinces as well as many parts of Baghdad.

Monitors and advisers noted the inexperience of the Iraqi elections workers who are doing this for the first time in their lives.

But one of the monitors, Najm al-Rubaie, said that given the novelty of the process, the workers were doing a good job.

"There was a high level of organization and there was accuracy and transparency in tallying the results," said al-Rubaie, a spokesman for an umbrella group of non-governmental organizations called Ein.

In other recent developments:

  • Iraqi militants claimed in a Web statement Tuesday to have taken an American soldier hostage and threatened to behead him in 72 hours unless the U.S. released Iraqi prisoners, but the U.S. military later said that no GI's have been reported missing in Iraq. The authenticity of the statement and accompanying photo could not be verified, and Liam Cusack, of the toy manufacturer Dragon Models USA, Inc., said the image of the soldier portrayed in the photo bore a striking resemblance to the African-American version of its "Cody" military action figure.
  • Interim Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawer says it would be "complete nonsense" to ask U.S. and other foreign troops to leave while Iraq is still in a state of "chaos" and "vacuum of power." Al-Yawer, a Sunni Arab, says coalition forces should leave only after Iraq's security forces are built up, the country's security situation has improved and some pockets of terrorists are eliminated.
  • The top U.N. electoral expert on Tuesday praised the vote in Iraq as one of the most moving she had ever seen. Carina Perelli, who has helped advise on dozens of elections from East Timor to the Palestinian territories, called the Jan. 30 election a "dignified, peaceful demonstration" of Iraqis' will. Over 40 people were killed but she told a news conference it had been a feat that no polling station was closed for the day because of security fears.
  • A former Abu Ghraib guard pleaded guilty Tuesday to three of five charges in the Iraqi prison abuse scandal as part of an agreement with prosecutors. Sgt. Javal Davis, 27, pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty, battery and making a false official statement to Army investigators after explicit photographs from the prison were made public last spring.
  • Two policemen were killed when a bomb they were trying to defuse exploded on a street in the Kurdish-run city of Irbil.

    Some politicians on Tuesday complained that many residents in largely Sunni Arab areas, such as Mosul and Hawija, weren't able to vote because there weren't enough ballots.

    Iraqi President al-Yawer acknowledged that tens of thousands of people may not have been able to vote in Mosul, Basra, Baghdad and Najaf because of ballot shortages.

    The chairman of Iraq's electoral commission, Abdul-Hussein Hendawi, said the complaints will be investigated.

    "You have to understand that the security situation in some of these areas was not perfect, therefore if there has been any inadequacy of numbers of voting sheets we are looking into that and we will announce the results of the investigation," he told reporters.

    Hendawi said a team of three lawyers from outside the commission was put together to review all petitions. About 18 had been received by early Tuesday.

    Commission official Hamdiya al-Husseini said there were also reports that in the northern city of Kirkuk some police officers took off with some of the ballots. She provided no further details.