Monday, December 26, 2005

Violence Flares Up Across Iraq

Published on Monday, December 26, 2005
by Louise Roug and Borzou Daragahi

BAGHDAD — Bitter demonstrations and a series of roadside bombings and shootings across Iraq on Sunday and early today left at least 21 people dead, ending a relatively placid stretch since the parliamentary election a week and a half ago.

The violence comes after more than a week of discontent and acrimony among some voters over the preliminary results of the Dec. 15 balloting for the first permanent national government since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

With those early tabulations showing a probable landslide for Shiite Muslim religious parties, losing slates and their supporters have cried foul. More than 1,000 election fraud complaints have been filed with Iraqi officials, and there have been waves of protests in and around Baghdad.

"With these election results you're giving the resistance a reason to continue their resistance," said Nabeal Mohammed Younis, a professor of political science and a Sunni Muslim Arab nationalist.

Sunni Arabs, a minority who enjoyed favored status under Saddam Hussein's former government, as well as secular Iraqis have expressed disappointment and even disbelief that they did not win more votes in the election.

U.S. officials have already become resigned to the looming election results. Since the vote, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have visited Iraq and met with transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari of the Shiite religious coalition.

Western officials have begun optimistically likening the ascendant Shiite religious political parties to the U.S.-backed Christian Democratic parties that dominated German and Italian politics after World War II.

At the same time, angry protests about the vote took place in cities across Iraq against a backdrop of violence.

A suicide car bomber slammed into two Iraqi army vehicles in central Baghdad on Sunday, killing five soldiers and wounding seven police and civilians, police Maj. Mohammed Younis told Associated Press.

The U.S. military also announced the deaths Sunday of two soldiers from Task Force Baghdad. Both were killed by roadside bombs.

In a separate incident, an American tank was set ablaze when it hit a roadside bomb on a Baghdad highway, Iraqi officials said. The U.S. military confirmed the report but would not release details on casualties.

Two Iraqi soldiers were killed in a mortar attack on an Iraqi army base in Mahmoudiya. Another mortar blast injured two people near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Baghdad.

Three officers in an Iraqi police patrol were wounded by a roadside bomb near the capital's Al Shaab stadium.

Near the city's heavily fortified Green Zone, 11 people were injured when a roadside bomb exploded near a group of Iraqi soldiers.

In Tikrit, north of the capital, rebels targeted Gov. Hamid Hamoud Qaisi, who escaped unhurt from a bombing on the road to Baiji.

In the northern city of Kirkuk, gunmen attacked a police checkpoint. Officers killed one of the insurgents, but other guerrillas fled. Ten minutes later, a bomb exploded nearby, wounding two civilians. Later in the day, the convoy of a Kurdish official hit a bomb, injuring four bodyguards and three civilians.

And early today, assailants attacked an Iraqi police checkpoint near Baqubah with gunfire and mortar rounds. Five Iraqi officers and six gunmen were killed in the clash, Iraqi officials said.

One of Sunday's largest political protests took place in Baqubah, northeast of the capital, drawing more than 1,000 demonstrators.

The march had been delayed a day because of fear of violence, said Mishaan Saadi of the National Dialogue Council, a Sunni Arab nationalist group.

"We were forced not to go out" yesterday, he said Sunday. "But today we were determined to demonstrate whatever the price."

In the northern city of Mosul, students took to the streets, protesting the alleged assassination of Qusai Salahaddin, a Sunni Arab student leader with ties to a political party in Mosul. Salahaddin, who had headed an earlier demonstration, was abducted Friday, said Khalid Othman, spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party in Mosul. His body was found Sunday and his funeral morphed into a demonstration against the Shiite-Kurdish coalition government.

In recent days, the city had been touted by American officials as an example of progress in Iraq. On Saturday, Rumsfeld visited Mosul, serving food to U.S. troops.

In the western city of Fallouja, a gathering of Sunni families assembled to bid their relatives goodbye as they left for the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, turned into a protest as residents demanded a rerun of the election, the withdrawal of American troops from the city and lower gasoline prices. The cost of fuel has skyrocketed since Dec. 15.

Omar Jumeili, a 40-year-old supermarket owner who participated in the protest, said residents had hoped for better government services after the vote. "But instead they increased the prices of gasoline," he said.

Last week, the head of the city council, Sheik Kamal Nazal, voiced a similar complaint: "The ink wasn't even dry on our fingers before they raised the prices," he said.

In the impoverished Sadr City district of Baghdad, hundreds of Shiites, including police officers, marched in support of the apparently victorious Shiite religious slate and the current government. Some held up signs saying "No, no to [former interim Prime Minister Iyad] Allawi," who led a broad secular slate in the balloting.

Despite claims of election malfeasance made by Sunnis and secular Shiites, early results roughly match those of the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum.

In Baghdad province, 22.3% of voters rejected the Shiite-supported constitution in October. This month, Sunni Arab political slates received about 21% of the vote, and Allawi's slate got 14%. In Shiite-dominated Basra in October, 4% of voters cast "no" ballots against the referendum. This time around, Sunni parties received about 5% of the vote while Allawi's list got 11% there.

Nevertheless, the complaints have been accumulating. They have included allegations of ballot stuffing, miscounting and numerical discrepancies.

Some are minor. For example, one complaint alleges that all of the voters in a certain polling station chose Sunni Arab candidate Saleh Mutlak.

More seriously, Sunni Arabs have accused high-level election officials of exhibiting bias in favor of the religious Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance. But international election officials say the evidence is thin. In one instance, critics accused a leading female election official of being biased in favor of religious parties merely because she is an alwiya, a Shiite descendant of the prophet Muhammad.

A representative from Allawi's secular slate charged that ballots from an entire province had been miscounted, costing his coalition more than 70,000 votes and at least one seat in the new parliament.

Monitors from the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq have been examining disputed ballot boxes to look for signs of vote tampering or ballot stuffing.

Officials have said that they haven't found any signs of serious vote fraud, though they continue to investigate about 35 complaints, including allegations that election officials may have been party to vote rigging.

"This election has been one of the most observed in the whole world," said Adil Lami, head of the commission.

Times staff writers Raheem Salman and Saif Rasheed and special correspondents Asmaa Waguih in Baghdad and others in Tikrit, Kirkuk and Mosul contributed to this report.

Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times


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