International Team to Review Iraq Elections

An international team has agreed to review Iraq's parliamentary elections, announcing Thursday that members would travel to Iraq in response to protests by Sunni Arab and secular Shiite groups that the polls were tainted by fraud.

The announcement came after the Sunni and secular Shiite groups refused to open discussions with the Shiite religious bloc leading in the elections without a full review of the contested results, despite a U.N. observer's endorsement of the Dec. 15 vote. The official, Craig Jenness, said Wednesday his U.N.-led international election assistance team found the elections to be fair — remarks that represented crucial support for Iraqi election commission officials, who refused opposition demands to step down.

Iraq's leading Sunni Arab group, the Iraqi Accordance Front, welcomed the review.

"We are optimistic with this international response and hope that it will find a solution for this crisis," Accordance spokesman Thafir al-Ani told The Associated Press.

In violence Thursday, gunmen killed 12 members of an extended Shiite family near Latifiyah, a Sunni Arab-dominated town about 20 miles south of Baghdad. Police said the men were taken from their homes, packed into a minivan and shot. In the capital, a homicide bomber killed a police officer, gunmen assassinated an Iraqi driver working with a French company and a university student in northwestern Baghdad was killed in a drive-by shooting.

The political turmoil surrounding the elections has dampened hopes by the Bush administration and many Iraqi officials for a broad-based government that will include minority Sunni Arabs as well as secular Shiites, helping draw disaffected Sunnis away from Iraq's violent insurgency and allow for a decrease in U.S. and coalition forces.

Among the International Mission for Iraqi Elections will be two representatives from the Arab League, one member of the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians and a respected European academic, the group said Thursday. The independent group said it helped monitor the elections in Baghdad and was "assisted by monitors from countries of the European Union working under IMIE's umbrella."

The team will travel to Iraq at the invitation of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq. An official for the commission, Safwat Rashid, said a review could "evaluate what happened during the elections and what's going on now. We are highly confident that we did our job properly and we have nothing to hide."

Preliminary results from the vote have given the governing Shiite religious bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, a big lead — but one which still would require forming a coalition with other groups.

The invitation to review the process and about 1,500 complaints lodged by candidates and parties was welcomed by the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who said "these experts will be arriving immediately and we are ready to assist them, if needed." Iraqi elections officials have acknowledged some instances of fraud, but said they would only change results a few areas.

On Thursday, Polish President Lech Kaczynski approved extending the country's military mission in Iraq for another year, the country's prime minister said. The government had asked Kaczynski to reverse plans by its predecessor to bring home troops serving with the U.S.-led coalition in early 2006.

"The issue is closed and taken care of," Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz told all-news station TVN24.

Though the mission will be prolonged, the number of Poles serving in Iraq will be cut from about 1,500 to 900 by March, officials have said.

U.S. airstrikes in Kirkuk province killed 10 insurgents on Tuesday, including three who were planting roadside bombs, the military said Thursday.

Al Qaeda in Iraq threatened on Thursday to kill five kidnapped employees of the Sudanese Embassy in Baghdad in two days unless Khartoum removes its diplomatic mission from Iraq. The group, which has kidnapped and killed a string of Arab diplomatic personnel this year, said in a statement on a Web forum where Al Qaeda in Iraqi frequently posts messages that it had snatched the five Sudanese, who it said included diplomats.

The claim could not be immediately confirmed.

The Sudanese Foreign Ministry reported on Dec. 24 that six of its embassy employees were kidnapped, including a diplomat — the mission's second secretary, Abdel Moneam Mohammad Tom. It was not immediately clear if the Al Qaeda statement referred to the same group.

Also Thursday, gunmen kidnapped a Lebanese engineer in Iraq, the Lebanese Foreign Ministry said. The ministry's statement gave no other details on the disappearance of Camile Nassif Tannous, who works for the Schneider engineering firm.

Militants have kidnapped more than 240 foreigners and killed at least 39 of them during the past two years.

On Wednesday, militants released a video of a French engineer kidnapped in Iraq three weeks ago. Insurgents are also holding four Christian humanitarian workers — two Canadians, a Briton and an American.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy called Thursday for the immediate release of the engineer, Bernard Planche, emphasizing that France has no military presence there.

Militants who released the video of Planche denounced the "illegal French presence" in the country, the news channel Al-Arabiya reported.

Assem Jihad, a spokesman for Iraq's oil ministry, said Thursday the country's largest oil refinery had suspended operations since Dec. 24 after insurgents threatened to kill drivers and blow up trucks that distribute its oil products across Iraq.