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Ballot irregularities, recount delay announcement of election results

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqi election officials on Wednesday delayed announcing the official results of the Jan. 30 elections by several days to allow a recount of some 150,000 votes and to sort through thousands more that won't be counted because of irregularities.

Also, a wave of kidnappings and assassinations, which had tapered off in the days after the elections, picked back up Wednesday, reinforcing fears that the elections, in which millions of voters risked their lives to cast ballots, hadn't impeded the insurgency.

Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, the deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, the division of the military that's responsible for the Iraq operation, said in a briefing at the Pentagon that violence in Iraq was back to pre-election levels of roughly 40 insurgent attacks a day.

"People count them different, but the numbers are about where they were before we got into the pre-election violence," Smith said.

He said American forces had had success hunting down insurgents, particularly those linked to Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. But he cautioned that "until we get the economic engine going in Iraq, we're going to continue having some problems and giving them an obvious recruiting base to recruit from."

He also said he was pleased with the progress that Iraqi security forces had made in recent months.

On Wednesday, an Iraqi television correspondent and his 3-year-old son were shot to death in the southern city of Basra. Abdul Hussein Khazal worked for the U.S.-backed Al-Hurra ("Freedom") station. He was ambushed outside his home at about 8 a.m.

A senior official from the Interior Ministry and an official at the Housing and Construction Ministry also were reported kidnapped. Spokesmen from the ministries weren't available to comment.

The fate of an Italian journalist nabbed outside Baghdad University earlier this week remained unclear. One group claiming responsibility reportedly has claimed to have killed her, while another said she would be freed shortly.

Meanwhile, the counting of votes continued.

Iraqi electoral officials said earlier in the week that the final vote count would be announced by Thursday at the latest. That deadline has been swept aside without a new one set.

According to partial results released earlier this week, the Shiite Muslim cleric-led United Iraqi Alliance was ahead, with more than 2.3 million votes. A coalition of Kurdish parties was second, with more than 1.1 million votes. Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's slate was third, at 620,459 votes.

It's impossible to gauge the potential impact of uncounted votes or ballots slated for recount because voting officials haven't said how many Iraqis voted and haven't released totals from Baghdad, Basra or Mosul, the country's largest cities.

At issue in the recount are 300 boxes, with about 500 ballots each, that Iraqi electoral commission member Adel al-Lami said were flagged for problems. The boxes, he said, were in many cases accompanied by tally sheets that didn't add up to the numbers of votes inside. In other instances, he said, the boxes were from provinces where the commission knew voter turnout was low, but the boxes were stuffed full of ballots.

The recount may suggest that monitoring procedures for the counting process are working, although the voting itself was marred by violence and charges of irregularities.

An unspecified number of ballots were sent to Baghdad from the northern city of Mosul in a variety of unofficial containers, including 174 plastic sacks.

The sacks and various plastic and cardboard boxes were stacked in a corner of the main vote-tally center in Baghdad.

Election officials said this week that gunmen stormed several polling stations in and around Mosul, taking ballots and ballot boxes. Assyrian Christian groups have said that tens of thousands of their members were unable to vote in the Mosul area because polling stations were closed.

Farid Ayar, an electoral commission member, said he thought some boxes were taken from polling stations a day or two before the elections and returned full of ballots. He said he based that conclusion on the fact that the ballots were stacked neatly on top of one another instead of being crammed in, as happens when people drop their votes through a slot.

Asked how many votes from Mosul may have been tampered with, Ayar said, "We really don't have any idea."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Nancy A. Youssef, who reports for the Detroit Free Press, and special correspondent Yasser al Salihee contributed to this report from Baghdad.)

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

Iraq

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