BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's interim president said Tuesday that tens of thousands of people may have been unable to vote in the country's historic weekend election because some polling places — including those in Sunni Arab areas — ran out of ballots.
As clerks pounded vote-count tallies into computers to compile final results, President Ghazi al-Yawer (search) also said chaos and a power vacuum in Iraq mean U.S. forces need to stay for now, even though a new government will be formed after the results are known.
Scattered clashes were reported in rebel areas across the country, but authorities still eased security restrictions by reopening borders and allowing commercial flights to take off from Baghdad Airport (search) for the first time since the weekend's landmark election.
The allegation that many voters were turned away could further alienate minority Sunnis, who already are complaining they have been left out of the political process.
"Tens of thousands were unable to cast their votes because of the lack of ballots in Basra (search), Baghdad and Najaf," al-Yawer, himself a Sunni Arab, said at a news conference. Najaf is a mostly Shiite city but Basra and Baghdad have substantial Sunni populations.
Elections officials acknowledged that irregularities kept people away — including in the volatile northern and heavily Sunni city of Mosul. Security worries in Sunni areas were partly to blame for the fact that some polls did not open and ballots were too few, they said.
"The elections took place under difficult conditions and this undoubtedly deprived a number of citizens in a number of areas from voting," said Abdul-Hussein al-Hendawi, who heads the Iraqi electoral commission.
At his news conference, al-Yawer was asked whether the presence of foreign troops might be fueling the country's Sunni-led insurgency by encouraging rebel attacks.
"It's only complete nonsense to ask the troops to leave in this chaos and this vacuum of power," al-Yawer said.
He said foreign troops should leave altogether only after Iraq's security forces are built up, the country's security situation has improved and some pockets of terrorists are eliminated.
"At the end of this year, we will witness the beginning of the decrease of forces and not their withdrawal," al-Yawer said. The president has been a strong critic of some aspects of the U.S. military's performance in Iraq, including the three-week Marine siege of the former Sunni rebel stronghold of Fallujah in April.
Sunday's election, which occurred without catastrophic rebel attacks, raised hopes that a new Iraqi government would be able to assume greater responsibility for security, hastening the day when the 170,000 U.S. and other foreign troops can go home.
The first visible reduction could come as soon as March, when thousands of U.S. troops whose tours were extended prior to the election are due to go home. If commanders allow the full rotation out and others are not brought it, it would shrink the overall force to 138,000.
But the timing of cutbacks beyond that is highly uncertain. Administration officials are determined to avoid setting a specific timetable.
"It's not a month or a year. It's condition-based," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday in a CNN interview.
January was the third month since the U.S. invasion of Iraq that U.S. troop deaths reached or exceeded 100. According to the Pentagon's latest count, at least 100 died in January, while an Associated Press tally put the figure at 102. The only months deadlier for U.S. troops were November, when 138 died, and April, with 135. More than 1,400 troops have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.
As al-Yawer spoke in the heavily fortified Green Zone, armed Western security guards and monitors watched nearby as election workers began a final count of the country's vote, tapping at computer keyboards and sifting through bags of tally sheets.
On Monday afternoon, workers at polling centers nationwide finished an initial hand count of ballots from more than 5,200 precincts. Tally sheets and ballots were then trucked to Baghdad under U.S. military escort.
On Tuesday, about 200 clerks began logging data from the tally sheets into laptop computers for the final count. Election officials have not said when the compilation will be completed and final results made public.
The issue of Sunni participation is key because of fears that further political alienation could fuel the Sunni-led insurgency bedeviling the country.
One Iraqi Sunni tribal leader went to the Arab League in Cairo on Tuesday, complaining the election was illegitimate because it was imposed under military occupation. Some Sunnis called for a boycott because of the presence of U.S. troops.
Raad al-Hamadani, the secretary-general of the Council of Iraqi tribes, said that as a result of the troop presence, the National Assembly to be formed after the elections will not be able to lawfully draft a constitution.
Though it could take up to 10 days for official results to be known, the main Shiite Muslim Alliance stands to claim the biggest share of seats in the National Assembly, according to party pollwatchers, who were on hand for the first-round counting that began at local precincts Sunday night.
But the Alliance probably won't win enough to push through a political agenda or claim the prime minister's job without support from other parties — notably the Kurds.
Shiites comprise some 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million population but were repressed under the rule of ousted leader Saddam Hussein, a Sunni.
The ticket headed by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite backed by the United States, is running second in central and southern Iraq, according to politicians from several factions.
Violence Tuesday included clashes that broke out early Tuesday in Mosul between insurgents and Iraqi National Guards, officials said. One person was killed and another injured. A roadside bomb killed four Iraqi National Guardsmen in the northwest of the city. And two policemen were killed when a bomb they were trying to defuse exploded on a street in the Kurdish-run city of Irbil.