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U.N.: Iraq Vote Free Of Fraud

A senior U.N. official said Wednesday that Iraq's parliamentary elections were free of fraud and do not need to be rerun, angering a Sunni Arab leader whose supporters have for the past week taken to the streets demanding a new ballot.

That's a demand that will not be met, reports CBS News correspondent Kelly Cobiella and now the question remains whether Sunni leaders back off and try to make deals with Shiite and Kurdish politicians for a bigger role in the new government.

Preliminary election results also indicated that Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, a former Washington insider, will not be re-elected 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 U.S. Congress. A Shiite, he fell from grace after his claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction were discredited.

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

"The United Nations is of the view that these elections were transparent and credible," said Jenness, a Canadian electoral expert who in the past worked with the OSCE.

In related developments:

  • The chairman of the Joint Chiefs opened a week-long trip to the Middle East with a stop at a military base in Doha, Qatar. General Peter Pace will spend time with troops, and will also meet with many of the generals in charge of stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan. That process is considered key to being able to withdraw U.S. troops from the region in any substantial amount.
  • Inmates stormed a prison armory in a northern Baghdad suburb Wednesday, with one grabbing an AK-47 rifle from an Iraqi guard and firing indiscriminately, killing eight people and wounding a U.S. soldier, Iraqi and American military officials said. The botched escape attempt comes days after the United States said it would not hand over prisoners to Iraqi officials until they improved conditions in the overcrowded prison system.
  • Militants on Wednesday 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, sitting on a chair with two armed men on either side of him. "I am sorry for everything that has happened ... I want to thank all those who are trying to help me," Planche said. He identified himself as "Bernard" and said he worked on water projects in Baghdad.
  • President Bush plans to begin 2006 by visiting wounded troops at an Army medical center in Texas on New Year's Day. Mr. Bush will stop at Brooke Army Medical Center on Sunday on his way back to Washington from a weeklong stay at his Texas ranch, a spokesman said. Most of the soldiers he will see were injured in Iraq, Duffy said. During his holiday stay, the Crawford chapter of Veterans for Peace is organizing small demonstrations near the president's ranch.
  • Two U.S. pilots were killed after their Apache collided in mid-air with another helicopter just west of Baghdad, according to a senior Defense Department official. The official, who did not want to be identified because the investigation is still ongoing, said one helicopter crash-landed Monday evening, killing both pilots. The second helicopter was able to land at Taji, an air base 12 miles north of Baghdad.
  • Gunmen killed a major in the former Iraqi army and a person in the car with him in eastern Baghdad, police Lt. Thair Mahmoud said. Gunmen in west Baghdad killed Interior Ministry Brig. Haider Ali Saied, a hospital official said.
  • "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.

    Officials with the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, who have been criticized by opposition groups, have refused demands to step down. They said the elections were free and fair, while the few instances of fraud of ballot box rigging would be dealt with.

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

    The United States and many Iraqi officials hope the elections will lead to a broad-based government that will include Sunni Arabs and secular Shiites such as former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

    It was hoped the large turnout by Sunni Arab voters would lead to their active involvement in a new government, giving it the legitimacy it needs to help deflate the insurgency.

    One step in that direction came in restive western Anbar province, where a high-ranking Interior Ministry official made a rare appearance in Ramadi — considered an insurgent hot spot.

    Fahqer Maryosh, the third most senior official in the ministry, met with local and U.S. military officials to discuss the reestablishment of the Iraqi police in the province, Marine Capt. Jeffrey S. Pool said.

    In another of continuing political demonstrations across the country, more than 4,000 people rallied Wednesday in predominantly Sunni Arab Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad. Demonstrators carried banners reading "We refuse the election forgery."

    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' 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 U.N. stand provokes our astonishment because they have not responded to our complaints, which we have submitted," al-Mutlaq told The Associated Press by telephone. "This statement provokes anger and frustration."

    He said without elaboration that the U.N. 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 a rerun.

    "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 had been discovered in the provinces of Baghdad, Irbil, Ninevah, Kirkuk, Anbar and Diyala.

    Jenness said the number of complaints was less than one in every 7,000 voters. About 70 percent of Iraq's 15 million voters took part in the elections. He added that the U.N. saw no reason to hold a new ballot.

    "Complaints must be adjudicated fairly, but we in the United Nations see no justification in calls for a rerun of any election," he said.

    Preliminary results from the Dec. 15 vote have given the governing Shiite United Iraqi Alliance a big lead, but one unlikely to allow it to govern without forming a coalition with other groups. Final results are expected early next month, but the Shiite religious bloc may win about 130 seats in the 275-member parliament — short of the 184 seats needed to avoid a coalition with other parties.

    The Shiite bloc held talks with Kurdish leaders Wednesday and said preparations were being made to choose a candidate for prime minister — who they have said must come from their governing United Iraqi Alliance.

    "We set up the mechanism to elect the new prime minister but have not started it yet. Any member of the Alliance has the right to be nominated for that post," Alliance leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim told the Kurdish parliament.

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

    "We are waiting for the final results of the elections and we are doing some preliminary consultations. After the announcement of the final results we will seek consensus," he said.

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