BAGHDAD – Iraq's military clamped a vehicle ban Monday on the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar after tribal sheiks sent gunmen into the streets claiming Sunni rivals linked to the Shiite-led government stole votes in last weekend's elections.
The vehicle curfew was lifted the next morning with no reports of violence, the Iraqi military said, but the ban was an indicator of a brewing crisis threatens to trigger new violence in Anbar. The province is a vast, mostly desert territory that had been center-stage in the Sunni insurgency until tribes there turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq two years ago.
Anbar was one of 14 of the country's 18 provinces in which Iraqis chose members of ruling councils, which in turn select governors. Saturday's elections took place without major violence and were hailed by President Barack Obama as a major achievement on the country's path to stability after nearly six years of war.
But U.S. officials had said before the balloting that the ultimate test of the election was whether the Iraqi public perceived the outcome as fair.
Although there were allegations of election irregularities in many provinces, the complaints seemed more serious in Anbar, an area where most families own guns and where tribes maintain their own armed forces.
Tribal groups, known as Awakening Councils, had hoped to win power in Anbar, believing they were entitled because of their contribution to routing al-Qaida.
Election officials have not released official figures from the balloting. Nevertheless, the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group that is part of the national government, said unofficial tallies showed it would retain control of the province.
The sheiks cried foul.
"The preliminary results were indicating that the Awakening was ahead. But then a strange thing happened after the polls closed. There was a jump in favor of the Islamic Party," said Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha, leader of the tribal alliance.
Abu Risha said the Awakening Councils' own surveys at polling stations showed the Islamic Party was trailing.
Salim Abdullah, a lawmaker from the Iraqi Islamic Party, dismissed the charges.
"These charges are made by political groups who did not fare as well as they had hoped. They are a form of pressure designed to change the real results of the vote," he said.
With tempers flaring, Iraqi commander Maj. Gen. Murdhi Mishhin ordered all vehicles off the streets and roads of the province from 10 p.m. Monday until dawn Tuesday.
The chairman the election commission, Faraj al-Haidari, said all formal complaints would be investigated. But he appeared to play down the allegations.
"Accusations are a normal process in Iraqi politics," al-Haidari said. "We look into all complaints in the same manner — not only in Anbar province. There were complaints in most provinces."
Anbar sheiks had complained that the Islamic Party, which dominated the previous council, had failed to improve public services in Anbar, where towns and cities were once battlegrounds between U.S. forces and Sunni insurgents.
"We will make from Anbar a graveyard for the Islamic Party and its allies, as well those who committed fraud," Sheik Hameed al-Haishe said. "We will not leave Anbar again to those criminals."
Sheik Ali Hatem Suleiman, a leader of Anbar's biggest tribe, warned of a "catastrophe."
"We are afraid of tribal sedition in the province," he added.
Although final results have not been released, preliminary surveys in the Iraqi media indicate that voters snubbed religious parties widely blamed for the sectarian slaughter that nearly plunged the country into full-scale civil war.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's party appeared to be the big winner because of public support for his crackdown last year on Shiite militias.
However, a major Shiite religious party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, insisted Monday that it had finished first or second in most provincial contests. The party provided no figures to back up its claim.
Al-Maliki had urged voters to go to the polls in large numbers, expressing hope for a turnout of 70 percent or 80 percent.
However, the election commission said nationwide turnout was 51 percent, well below the figures in two national elections in 2005.
Many Iraqis blamed the lower figure on a vehicle ban which made it difficult for people to reach their polling stations. Others complained that they didn't know where to vote and that their names were left off the registration rolls.
Iraqis also expressed skepticism about the political process and said they believed their votes would not matter.
"We gained nothing from the previous provincial council, and the promises and slogans of the new council will disappear as soon they get their posts," said Sana Mohammed, 31, of Baghdad. "Most of the candidates are part of gangs working under the cover and supervision of big, powerful parties."