Sunni group accepts Iraqi vote results

Supporters of boycott, hard-line clerics soften stance after the elections

February 03, 2005|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The hard-line Sunni religious organization that had called on its followers to boycott Iraq's election said yesterday that it would "respect the choice" of voters and accept the new government, hinting at the beginnings of an accommodation with the political process.

Amid growing concerns about the ramifications of the apparently low voter turnout in Sunni areas, the Association of Muslim Scholars complained that the elections "lack legitimacy because a large segment of different sects, parties and currents boycotted."

But in an apparent softening of their previously resolute rejection of any institution formed while U.S. troops are still occupying Iraq, the association said it would not oppose the elected government. The hard-line clerics, who wield influence in the insurgent-infested Sunni heartland, had refused to recognize what they called the "puppet" government of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

"We are going to respect the choice of those who voted and we will consider the new government -- if all the parties participating in the political process agree on it -- as a transitional government with limited powers," the association said in a statement.

Meanwhile, insurgents continued their attacks, killing 12 Iraqi soldiers in an ambush in northern Iraq.

The Iraqi troops were returning to the northern city of Kirkuk, where they guard oil facilities, when armed men ambushed them yesterday near the village of Zab, Maj. Gen. Anwar Mohammed Amin said today.

The ambush was the deadliest attack since the general elections. A U.S. Marine and two Iraqis who work on a U.S. military base were also killed in separate attacks.

Evidence is emerging that the low turnout in some Sunni areas can be attributed at least partly to a lack of voting facilities rather than a boycott by Sunnis heeding the clerics' call. Several Sunni politicians who competed in the election have complained that ballot papers ran out or election centers failed to open in several key areas, disenfranchising tens of thousands of voters.

Election officials acknowledged that there had been shortfalls in voting materials in some locations and blamed the dangerous climate in those areas, said Farid Ayar, the spokesman of the Higher Independent Election Commission.

Christian leaders also said paper ballots had failed to arrive in some Christian villages west of Mosul, denying an estimated 35,000 members of Iraq's small Christian community the opportunity to vote.

The results of Sunday's historic vote are still being tallied, and officials have not yet released the nationwide turnout. But all available evidence points to a sharply lower turnout in Sunni areas than Shiite ones.

A Western diplomat who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity said that turnout in the unruly western province of Anbar had been "quite low." In two other restive Sunni provinces, Salahuddin and Nineveh, there was more voting but still less than 50 percent participation, the diplomat said.

The turnout nonetheless appears to have exceeded expectations. One reason paper ballots ran out in some locations was that election organizers had failed to anticipate the number of Sunnis who wanted to vote. "The total [involved] in the process was unexpected," Ayar said.

Iraqi leaders now are focusing their efforts on ways to include Sunnis in the process. Allawi held a meeting at his offices in the Green Zone that brought together leading officials from all the major political parties, including the head of the Iraqi Islamic Party, another Sunni group that boycotted the poll.

Adnan Pachachi, a moderate Sunni leader who attended the meeting, said he believes those Sunnis who called for a boycott are now starting to regret their stand. "I think they realize this was a mistake," Pachachi said. "They have seen the desire of the people who voted ... and they realize they can't go on being sidelined like this."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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