Early results show Shiite bloc in lead

Allawi's secular coalition fares poorly in parliamentary vote


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A Shiite Muslim coalition built around Iraq's current governing alliance won a commanding number of seats in Thursday's elections, according to preliminary results released yesterday and unofficial reports from around the country.

Despite millions spent on a highly visible mass media campaign, the results appeared to be a major defeat for Ayad Allawi, the pro-Western secular Shiite and one-time CIA-backed opposition figure favored by American officials in Baghdad and Washington.

Preliminary reports from 11 of Iraq's 18 provinces and other vote estimates indicate that Islamic-led parties or coalitions from all main ethnic groups will win at least 175 of the 275 seats in the new parliament. In addition, officials of the main Kurdish alliance in northern Iraq said they expected to win about 55 seats.

Meanwhile, an Iraqi lawyer said at least 24 top former officials in Saddam Hussein's regime were freed from jail without charges. They included biological and chemical weapons experts known as "Dr. Germ" and "Mrs. Anthrax."

Iraqis voted in droves Thursday for a parliament that will assemble a government and determine the country's course for the next four years. Under complicated election rules, 230 seats will be divided among leading vote-getters according to the population of Iraq's provinces. The remaining 45 seats will be apportioned according to nationwide vote totals for political party slates.

Election officials cautioned that the numbers released yesterday were preliminary and didn't include huge swaths of the country, such as mostly Sunni Arab provinces of Anbar and Nineveh, and the ethnically mixed provinces surrounding Kirkuk, Mosul and Baqubah. Voting results may also be scrutinized for irregularities.

"We reject these results," Adnan Dulaimi, one of the leaders of the main Sunni Arab slate, told the Al Arabiya satellite television station. "There has been lots of manipulation, especially in Baghdad."

Sunnis are a minority but dominated the country under Hussein and now make up the core of the insurgency. They largely boycotted the January elections but turned out in large numbers last week.

Numbers tallied so far show a further entrenchment of the country's ethnic and sectarian divisions. Secular parties with pan-Iraqi appeal did poorly.

The Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, which currently dominates the government, estimated it would receive about 130 seats, fewer than it won in January but still the largest bloc of seats. The Alliance eschewed television ads in favor of the power of the mosque and the marjayia, the high-ranking Shiite clergy whose implicit blessing also propelled the coalition to power in January.

The Alliance received about 80 percent of votes in the Najaf and Karbala provinces, home to important religious shrines and seminaries, and appears to have secured 12 of 14 seats there, according to results from about 98 percent of polling centers reporting. A partnership with groups representing rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who kept his distance from the Alliance in the January elections, also contributed to its victory.

The Alliance received as much as 99 percent of votes at polling centers in Baghdad's Sadr City, home to many supporters of al-Sadr.

In contrast, an analysis of partial results indicated Allawi had secured at least 16 seats in Baghdad and the Shiite south. Early partial returns, and reports from across the country suggested he would wind up with no more than 25 seats, compared with the 40 seats his ticket won in January elections.

Allawi, the favored candidate of the country's Westernized intelligentsia, received only 13 percent of the vote in the province of Baghdad, where he is believed to be strongest.

Poor performance by Allawi and other centrists bodes ill for Iraq, said Wayne White, a former State Department intelligence official who is now an analyst at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.

"The thing that I really fear is that we're going to have a government of extremes, and the center doesn't seem to be taking shape," he said.

Iraqi political insiders estimate Allawi spent $20 million on his campaign and joked that he would wind up spending about as much per seat in parliament as do most members of the U.S. Congress. Allawi deputies acknowledged they were disappointed with their results. They blamed the suffering of their middle-class supporters, intimidation and cheating by the dominant Shiite coalition. Many Allawi loyalists, including the former interim prime minister himself, quickly left Iraq as results began trickling in.

They are suspicious about some areas of Baghdad, "where we will demand the recounting or the redoing of the elections," said Hussein Adeli, an official in the Allawi campaign. "The process was not transparent or honest according to international criteria. It was under threats, weapons, horror and the abuse of the religious figures all led to these results."

Two Sunni Arab slates won an estimated 12 seats in Baghdad, five in Salahadin province and a smattering in the Shiite south. Ayad Samaray, a leader of the main Sunni coalition, estimated that his Islamist-led coalition would ultimately win about 45 seats.

He said his National Accordance Front was willing to negotiate with the Shiite coalition, which includes one-time Iranian-backed militiamen who fought Hussein's Sunni government, to build a two-thirds majority necessary to approve a president. The president appoints a prime minister.

"This negotiation will start soon," he said. "There is even the possibility of a partnership with the alliance. We have very big complaints against their program and behavior. ... We have to make sure that they deal with these complaints."

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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