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BAGHDAD — Vote fraud allegations are threatening to throw parts of Iraq back into chaos, overshadowing preliminary provincial election results handing a clear victory to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Rule of Law coalition.

Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission released the results Thursday after initially postponing the release because of the fraud dispute. Final results are not expected until the end of February.

Maliki’s coalition won nine of the 14 provinces contested and was particularly dominant in Baghdad and Basra provinces, where it won 38 and 37 percent of the vote, respectively. The Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council, the country’s largest Shiite party, won just 5.4 percent and 11.6 percent of the vote in those provinces.

Yet the fraud accusations threaten to mar elections that were roundly hailed as a success when election day passed with minimal violence. More than 14,400 candidates competed for 440 provincial council seats in 14 of the country’s 18 provinces.

The elections were widely seen as a test of political progress in Iraq, and the ability of the government to resolve election issues could have implications for President Barack Obama’s plans for an American withdrawal from the country.

Post-election disputes have already generated threats of violence, while rumors generated by further delays could make those threats become a reality. Sunni tribal leaders trying to dethrone the Iraqi Islamic Party Vote are threatening to take up arms over accusations that the IIP padded Anbar province boxes with 100,000 ballot papers.

The IIP, Iraq’s largest Sunni party, has controlled Anbar since it won the 2005 provincial elections. But that victory was widely viewed as unrepresentative because a Sunni boycott meant only a miniscule fraction of the province actually voted.

Meanwhile, tribal “Awakening” groups — which eventually became the “Sons of Iraq” — made peace with coalition forces, pushed al-Qaeda out of the province and restored order. These leaders expected to be rewarded in Saturday’s elections.

Instead, election officials have received a flood of complaints about fraud and other violations that, if true, could have altered the result of the vote.

“Don’t blame us if we threaten to resort to the use of arms. This is destiny. It is to be or not to be,” Ahmed Abu Risha, the leader of the Awakening, told a news conference in Ramadi, the provincial capital. “This is not democracy. It is an abuse of democracy.”

The Iraqi government and election officials are trying to calm down both sides before the situation deteriorates further. Police imposed a curfew after both sides fired guns on the streets of Ramadi to celebrate victory.

Election delays have also created tensions in Diyala and Salahuddin provinces, which are also contested by two Sunni groups — the National Dialogue Front and the secular Iraqiya list, headed by Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister prior to the 2005 elections. IHEC results showed Allawi coming in fourth in Diyala with 9.2 percent of the vote and coming in second in Salah-ad-Din with 13.9 percent of the vote.

The situation among competing Shiite parties appears much more stable. No violence has been reported in the south or in Baghdad, where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Rule of Law coalition is trying to displace the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, long one of the country’s foremost political parties. Both parties are claiming victory based on their election monitors’ observations.

Raad Abbas Jassim, the head of the Iraqi police in Karkh, expects the situation in Baghdad to remain calm. The 2005 elections were more violent and more corrupt, but the results didn’t spark much violence, he said. Since nothing happened during those bad times, Jassim expects quiet during these relatively better-off times.

“Today, you have all the signs of a better environment, so I don’t expect anything to happen,” he said.

Political parties aren’t the only ones upset with what they see as a bungled election. At a base transfer ceremony Monday in Baghdad’s Adl neighborhood, local support council members complained that their chances of winning a seat were reduced because bureaucratic mishaps prevented Iraqis who fled their homes from voting.

Support councils, neighborhood councils and district councils — along with the Iraqi army — are often the government bodies working with those returning home. Leaders of the American-created councils hoped this would launch them into a provincial council seat. Yet, thousands of voters who fled their homes found that their names were not on the registration lists at polling stations.

Maliki’s coalition has a strong centralist philosophy that is unlikely to nurture the fragile groups of local representatives, said Sitar al-Orbay, the Karkh district chairman and a candidate who is thought to have won a Baghdad Provincial Council seat. Allawi’s claims to have won in two provinces are even more ominous since, in al-Orbay’s words, “he wanted to destroy them” at their inception.

Years of sectarian fighting had even long-time religious parties playing to the secular crowd during the campaign. Uday Mohammad Jalal, a neighborhood council member in Baghdad’s Qadisiyah neighborhood, said Maliki’s secularist-positioned coalition drew support from across sectarian lines.

The election also could be a setback for Iran. Many observers feared that a Shiite-dominated Iraq would fall under the sway of its coreligionist neighbor. Yet, Iranian-backed parties are expected to lose key races, with “Iranian” becoming a slur that many Shiite parties throw at their rivals.

But the elections may be just as significant for what they can’t do. Whoever prevails will face a top-heavy system that places much of the power in the hands of the federal government, Joost Hiltermann, an International Crisis Group analyst, wrote in an article for Foreign Policy.

Provincial and local council leaders have been slow to learn the mechanics of government, and even a new crop of provincial council politicians will find it hard to cure Iraq’s problems.

“At this point, elections are icing on the cake,” Hiltermann wrote. “The voting will indeed be a sign of revival. We should see it as an indicator of things to come. But we should not interpret it as conclusive evidence that Iraq has been fixed. There, elections are just the beginning.”

Jalal said the election should lead to more diverse, more representative provincial councils that are more attuned to local needs. But “I believe that the violence will return back if we can’t stop it with elections,” Jalal said. “If we can’t find a way, there will be a return of the violence.”


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