Sunnis, Shiites Talk Vote Results

Representatives of Sunni Arab parties met Wednesday in the office of a secular Shiite group to consider uniting to demand an investigation into preliminary election results showing the governing Shiite religious bloc with a larger than expected lead.

The meeting came as the trial of Saddam Hussein resumed after a two-week break in the same part of Baghdad, the heavily fortified Green Zone. The former leader, who had refused to attend the last session, was in court.

Saddam and seven co-defendants are on trial for the deaths of more than 140 Shiite Muslims following a 1982 assassination attempt against him in the town of Dujail, north of Baghdad.

Iraq is engulfed in political turmoil following the release of preliminary results from the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections, which the electoral commission said drew about 70 percent of the country's 15.5 million voters.

The results showed the governing Shiite grouping, the United Iraqi Alliance, winning strong majorities not only in Baghdad but in the largely Shiite southern provinces. Sunni Arabs turned out in large numbers, unlike January's balloting, which most had boycotted.

Despite the lead, the Shiite religious bloc will likely fall short of the 184 seats necessary to chose a new president, the first step needed to form a government, and will have to find a coalition partner in the 275-member parliament.

Sunni Arabs charged Tuesday that the elections were tainted by fraud. Their complaints focused mainly on Baghdad, Iraq's largest electoral district and one that has large numbers of Sunnis and Shiites. Even the Kurds, who are part of the current Shiite-led government, complained of irregularities.

In Baghdad's Green Zone, more than 50 representatives of various Sunni Arab political groups met to discuss those complaints in the offices of the Iraqi National List, a secular bloc led by former Shiite Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

"The Iraqi National List has invited all the lists who were affected by the forgery in the elections. We will take part in this meeting today to come together and find the suitable means to deal with this matter," said Mohammed al-Dayni, a senior member of the Iraqi Accordance Front.

The front is the main Sunni coalition headed by Adnan al-Dulaimi, Tariq al-Hashemi and Khalaf al-Ilyan. The meeting also included prominent Sunni candidate Saleh al-Mutlaq and former Interior Minister Falah al-Nakeeb, a key aide to Allawi — who was on a trip abroad. Al-Mutlaq, a hard-liner, was the only party leader present.

The bitter climate after the preliminary results were released has raised questions about U.S. hopes that the election would lead to a more inclusive government involving Sunni Arabs, the minority group that formed the core of Saddam's government and is now the backbone of the insurgency.

The main Sunni coalition has rejected the results and warned of grave repercussions if the mistakes are not corrected. Al-Dulaimi said that if changes were not made, Sunni Arabs "will resort to other measures" that he did not specify.

In Baghdad province and with 89 percent of ballot boxes counted, the United Iraqi Alliance was leading about 59 percent of the vote, while the Iraqi Accordance Front trailed with 19 percent.

Adel al-Lami, the general director of Iraq's electoral commission, told The Associated Press that officials did not announce the results of Baghdad's remaining 11 percent because of complaints of irregularities.

Al-Dulaimi's coalition has cited voting centers failing to open, shortages in election materials, reports of multiple voting and forgery. He said his group would demand a new vote in Baghdad if the problems were not addressed.

More than 1,000 complaints have been filed, and election officials say 20 are serious. Those complaints will delay final results until early January.

Based on the preliminary results, the United Iraqi Alliance seems on course to receive from 120 to 130 seats — compared with 140 now. Sunni Arabs may increase their seats from 17 to more than 40, while the Kurds are expected to get about the same number. Allawi, who controls 40 seats, is expected to be the big loser and drop to 20 seats or fewer.

But those numbers could change because of Iraq's complicated electoral system, which is designed to ensure that smaller parties are also represented. The provinces will directly elect 230 legislators, while 45 seats are allocated according to a party's share of the national and overseas vote.

A senior member of the United Iraqi Alliance, Jawad al-Maliki, said the Sunni minority should accept "the opinion of the majority."

Sunni Arabs fear being underrepresented and marginalized. Most estimates say they make up about 20 percent of the country, although al-Dulaimi claimed they comprise about 40 percent — a common Sunni assertion.

The electoral commission said 10,893,413 of 15,556,8702 registered voters cast ballots, a turnout of 69.97 percent. The Jan. 30 elections saw a turnout of 58 percent, while 63 percent participated in the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum.

The results did not include results from early voting on Dec. 12 for soldiers, hospital patients and prisoners. It also did not include the overseas vote.

The commission said the highest turnout was in the predominantly Sunni Arab province of Salahuddin, with 88.3 percent. The lowest was recorded in western Anbar, the restive Sunni Arab province that is considered to be the heartland of the insurgency.

Baghdad province had a turnout of 63.39 percent.