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Shiites miss majority but win biggest share



Published: Mon, February 14, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The interim prime minister's slate, backed by the United States, fared poorly.

CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq's long-downtrodden Shiites won the largest share of the vote in Iraq's landmark election, according to a final count released Sunday, though they failed to score the outright majority they had been expecting.

With a 48 percent share, the United Iraqi Alliance, a clergy-backed coalition of mostly religious Shiite parties, nonetheless will be in a virtually unassailable position to head the next government and take the lead in writing Iraq's new constitution.

The country's equally oppressed Kurds came in second, with 25.6 percent, leaving them well-placed to act as power brokers in the new National Assembly and cementing a dramatic reversal of fortune for two communities that have been persecuted throughout history by Iraq's Sunni minority.

Shiite and Kurdish leaders said they would reach out to include Sunnis, the election's biggest losers. The leading Sunni party, headed by interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, won just 1.8 percent, enough to secure four to five seats in the 275-seat assembly.

In Washington, President Bush hailed the result, which came two weeks after Iraqis braved the threat of bombs and bullets to go to the polls.

"I congratulate the Iraqi people for defying terrorist threats and setting their country on the path of democracy and freedom," he said in a statement. "The world saw long lines of Iraqi men and women voting in a free and fair election for the first time in their lives. The United States and our coalition partners can all take pride in our role in making that great day possible."

Despite initial optimistic projections that the lines at polling stations on election day meant Sunnis had defied insurgent threats and calls for a boycott, the dismally low turnout figures from Sunni areas suggest otherwise.

The turnout

In turbulent Anbar province, home to the city of Fallujah and to much of the insurgency, just 13,893 people voted, or 2 percent of those eligible.

In Nineveh province, where the troubled city of Mosul is located, turnout was 17 percent, and most of those who voted were Shiites and Kurds, judging by the result of the local election.

Turnout overall was 58 percent, or 8.5 million, ranging from Anbar's low of 2 percent to a high of 92 percent in the Kurdish province of Dohuk.

The outcome was a stinging blow for Ayad Allawi, the secular Shiite U.S.-backed interim prime minister, whose slate won only 13.7 percent of the vote despite the huge TV exposure afforded by his job and the biggest campaign spending by far of any candidate.

Allawi is disappointed and attributes his poor showing to the endorsement of the Shiite coalition by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite religious authority, said Raja Khuzai, an Allawi aide.

"Most of the people in the south are very simple and follow what Sistani tells them," she said. "The educated people know that Sistani is a cleric, a religious man just like the pope, and he shouldn't be involved in politics."

Shiite leaders expressed disappointment that they had not secured the majority they expected and said the unexpectedly high voting figures in Kurdish provinces diluted the Shiite vote. Kurds are the only group whose share of the vote was bigger than their representation in the population at large, which could breed resentment down the line.

Other groups, including Christians and Turkmens, have complained of irregularities in Kurdish areas that they claim denied their parties a larger percentage of the vote. The main Christian party won 0.4 percent of the vote, enough for a single seat, and the United Turkmen Front won 1.9 percent.




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