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Iraqi president rejects withdrawal of U.S. troops; Shiites project big win

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's interim president and defense minister said Tuesday that withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq was out of the question for the time being, in a stark reminder of the danger posed by the Iraqi insurgency even in the wake of Sunday's election.

As Iraq reopened its international airport and allowed traffic back on the road, President Ghazi al-Yawer said it would be "complete nonsense" for foreign troops to leave the country right away.

Vote-counting in the landmark election continued with no results announced, but a cleric-backed Shiite alliance said its projections showed a big win over U.S.-backed interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's political ticket.

If true, a group of Shiite leaders, some of whom may prefer an Iranian-style theocracy, would take the lead role in a national assembly slated to select an interim government and draft the nation's constitution.

The development could further alienate Iraq's minority Sunni Muslim population, many of whom distrust Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority and, in particular, the United Iraqi Alliance. The alliance was formed with the guidance of the top Shiite cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani.

Although Shiite leaders say they don't intend to impose a government run by clerics, suspicions persist that the alliance would push for a constitution based solely on Islamic law or clerical rule.

To combat these suspicions, Hussain Shahristani, a prominent nuclear physicist who is on the Iraqi Alliance list and helped with its formation, said his group is reaching out to Sunni political groups and offering to bring them into the political process even without seats in the national assembly.

Shahristani acknowledged that Sistani counseled people to vote for the Iraqi Alliance because "there are individuals in this alliance that the Iraqis can trust to put together a constitution."

But with the election over, Sistani has now said he'll have no further role in the political arena, Shahristani said.

If figures given by Shahristani are close to being correct, his group will be the key player in the process. He said the United Iraqi Alliance sent out some 13,000 observers on election day who documented voting tallies for about 500,000 voters.

From that sampling, Shahristani said, alliance officials calculated that their ticket took about 80 percent of the vote in several southern provinces and more than 50 percent in places such as Baghdad and the Sunni-Shiite split Diyala province.

It wasn't possible to confirm Shahristani's assertions, though there's no question that the alliance garnered many votes.

Election officials, including the United Nations representative on the Iraqi electoral commission, Carlos Valenzuela, had no comment.

"I can offer no confirmation of the substance—zero. So far, it is just a UIA claim," an American diplomat in Baghdad said in an e-mail exchange, insisting on anonymity. "We have no access to the actual ballot count."

Vote-counting began Tuesday morning under U.N. supervision in a building inside the Green Zone compound guarded by American tanks and troops. While Iraqi election officials had said there would be a second count of original ballots after an initial tally at polling stations, election workers were instead counting figures given on tally sheets from the stations.

Iraqis sat at computer terminals entering tallies throughout the day, and organizers said they would work in shifts around the clock.

U.N. vote observer Mauricio Claudio said he thought the process could take 10 days.

Shahristani wouldn't predict a margin of victory, but he said it was "significantly" higher than 50 percent.

U.S. officials are quick to point out that the alliance includes Sunnis and more secular-minded politicians, such as one-time Bush administration favorite Ahmad Chalabi. After enjoying a long stretch in which the American government paid his organization millions of dollars, Chalabi fell from grace during the past year over several instances, including allegations that he was acting as a spy for Iran.

There was a brief scare Tuesday when a Web site displayed pictures of what appeared to be a U.S. soldier, and militants threatened to kill him unless Iraqi prisoners were released.

The soldier, however, appeared to be identical to an action toy of U.S. commandos manufactured by Dragon Toys. It's unclear who may have posted the photo or why.

The U.S. military said it had no reports of missing soldiers.

"We've seen the broadcasts and we're still looking into it," said Staff Sgt. Nick Minecci, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad. "It's premature to respond one way or the other."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.