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Election results point to win for Shiite Muslims amid fresh violence

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A Shiite Muslim political group dominated by religious clerics, the United Iraqi Alliance, is leading the Iraqi national elections by a landslide, according to partial results released Thursday by the national electoral commission.

As the results trickled out, violence surged in an indication that the elections didn't quell the insurgency, as interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi had boasted earlier this week:

_Insurgents pulled 14 Oil Ministry guards off a bus in northern Iraq late Wednesday and shot 12 of them dead on the side of the road, leaving two to tell others not to work for Iraqi security forces, according to the Defense Ministry.

_A suicide car bomber rammed into a convoy of SUVs being escorted by U.S. military Humvees on Baghdad's airport road, leaving vehicles smoldering and an unknown number of casualties. Nearby, another insurgent attack killed five Iraqi policemen and an Iraqi soldier.

_ A police convoy leaving Baghdad for southern Iraq was ambushed and at least one policeman was killed and five wounded.

_The death of a second Marine killed in fighting in western Iraq was announced by the American military. Both Marines died Wednesday in Anbar province, home to the restive city of Fallujah, where sounds of a fierce gun battle could be heard Thursday evening.

Also on Thursday, grumbling over irregularities in the elections grew louder. There are allegations that thousands of Christians weren't allowed to vote in northern Iraq. Sunni Muslims were met with closed polling stations throughout central Iraq, according to anecdotal evidence. Several politicians complained Thursday that the United Iraqi Alliance used religious threats in southern Iraq to bring out the vote.

The electoral commission made public the results of 1.6 million votes across six provinces in the southern Shiite region of the country. The United Iraqi Alliance took some 1,164,770 of those votes, about 72 percent. Electoral commission officials have said that a little more than 8 million Iraqis voted throughout the country.

The partial results suggested that Allawi, who was backed by the CIA during the years he was in exile from Iraq, had little hope of being a major player in the new government. His ticket—the Iraqi List—brought in just 274,669 votes, or about 17 percent of the total so far. Should that relatively poor showing be confirmed in the final tally, U.S. hopes for continuity and continued leadership by a solidly secular government could be dashed.

Projections by the United Iraqi Alliance show strong voter support in other parts of the country as well, a result that could serve to widen the divide between the minority Sunni population, which apparently voted in small numbers, and the Shiites, who dominate the alliance. Many Sunnis worry that the alliance, which has strong Iranian connections, ultimately will pursue theocracy. Alliance member deny this and say they'll make every effort to include Sunnis in a government in which the mosque doesn't rule the state.

Hussain Shahristani, a prominent nuclear physicist who's on the alliance list and helped to form it, waved away fears of a religious government, saying they're a scare tactic used by politicians who are angry about the prospect of losing the election.

The ticket was formed under the guidance of the most powerful Shiite cleric in the country, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, an Iranian by birth. At the top of the ticket is Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which formed in Iran. A major party on the ticket, Dawa, received Iranian backing during its guerrilla fight against Saddam Hussein. One of the ticket's more secular members is Ahmad Chalabi, a one-time favorite of the White House who's been accused of funneling classified U.S. intelligence to Iran.

Iraqi officials stressed Thursday that the domestic votes came from just 10 percent of the nation's polling centers and the results were heavily weighted toward Shiite voters because they came from five Shiite-dominated provinces.

With a hefty margin of victory—each ticket will get seats in the 275-member National Assembly according to the percentage of the vote it gets—the United Iraqi Alliance may be able to broker deals with the ethnic Kurds in the north on issues such as drafting the new constitution. The Kurds, who are demanding the president or prime minister positions, figure to sweep the northern provinces, and together the two groups could easily end up with enough national assembly seats to control the drafting of the constitution.

While the Kurds are secular-minded and may be unwilling to live under the rule of Shiite clerics, there's speculation that they'd simply broker a deal in which they're left alone in the north, living under their own rules and laws as they have since the early 1990s.

Election commission member Safwat Rashid said Thursday that a team of investigators had been sent to Mosul to investigate accusations by Assyrian Christian leaders that the Kurds had rigged elections around the northern city and by thousands of Christians that polling stations in their areas of Mosul were closed.

"The real problem was ... the local staff there couldn't continue their work because of the terrorists' threats," Rashid said.

Some candidates accused the United Iraqi Alliance of demagoguery and scare tactics.

"The voters who came to the polling center that I monitored came to vote for (the alliance) because they thought there was a fatwa"—meaning a religious order—"by Sistani to vote that way," said Ayad Saddam, a representative of the secular Free Democratic Homeland Party. "They said they should choose it above other lists because it was their religious duty. There was an old woman who came to vote. She said, `If I don't vote for (the alliance) I will not go to heaven; I will face hell.' That is what they were told."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Huda Ahmed and Yasser Al Salihee contributed to this report from Baghdad.)

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050203 USIRAQ

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