BAGHDAD — At least four Sunni Muslim candidates who appear to have won parliamentary seats on the winning ticket of secular leader Ayad Allawi have become targets of investigation by security forces reporting to the narrowly defeated Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, according to interviews Saturday with relatives, Iraqi security forces and the U.S. military.
All four candidates ran in Diyala province, a restive mainly Sunni area north of Baghdad. One candidate who won more than 28,000 votes is being held incommunicado in a Baghdad jail, two other winners are on the run and the whereabouts of the fourth, a woman, are unknown.
Maliki alluded to the cases in his televised refusal Friday to accept a loss in the March 7 parliamentary elections, saying of unnamed rival candidates: "What would happen if some of them are in prison now on terror accusations and they participated in the elections and might win?"
Maliki's critics say the Shiite prime minister is using state security forces and the courts to remove political rivals - especially prominent Sunnis - in a last-ditch effort to disqualify candidates from Allawi's Iraqiya coalition, which holds only a two-seat lead ahead of Maliki's State of Law bloc.
The government's action, coupled with appeals by Maliki's bloc for the votes to be thrown out in these cases, appeared to be a long shot maneuver to strip Allawi of his margin of victory. In the end, Iraq's high court will have to settle this and other disputes and certify the final results, a process that could take another two weeks
One of the fugitive candidates said security forces had staged two raids on his home this week, including one Saturday morning. "I'm confused as to how I can make it to parliament to be sworn in when I can't even go home," said Raad Dahlaki, the chairman of the Baqouba City Council. McClatchy reached him by telephone at an undisclosed location.
"Will I be stripped of my right to fill the seat I won through hard work? Will I be able to keep the promises I made to people, to improve their lives? I have no clue why there are all these attempts to arrest me," he said.
The prime minister's office did not respond to repeated requests for comment. An aide, Sadiq al Husseini, laughed and called the allegations "silly," but did not make officials available.
A senior Iraqi security official in Diyala confirmed investigations against the four, but did not provide any details of possible evidence against them.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because he isn't authorized to address the cases publicly, the official identified the four candidates as: Dahlaki, the Baquba council chairman who won nearly 12,000 votes, according to official results; Najm Abdullah al Harbi, a Diyala provincial council member with more than 28,000 votes; Mohammed Othman, former mayor of the town of Saadiya with nearly 10,000 votes; and Ghydaa Saeed, a political newcomer who's said to be under scrutiny because she's related to a cabinet member from Saddam Hussein's former regime. She won nearly 6,800 votes.
The security official said arrest warrants have been issued for the first three and that a fourth, for Saeed, is expected any day. He added that all the cases hinged on accusations related to terrorism.
"These warrants have nothing to do with elections. They were issued even before the elections," the security official said.
Harbi's case is the most talked-about in Diyala because of his stature in the province, where he's served in several city and provincial positions since 2004. Al Qaida in Iraq has targeted him and his family, and last month Iraqi security forces arrested him.
The 41-year-old farmer with two wives and seven children left behind the family citrus orchards to enter politics, said his brother, Ammar Abdullah, 31.
It was a risky move for a Sunni in Diyala, for which his extended family paid dearly. The province is one of the last bastions for Sunni extremists who have been pushed out of Baghdad and areas to the west, and nearly two dozen of his relatives who joined him as bodyguards were killed in well-documented bombings and assassinations in 2007 and 2008.
These were some of the worst years for attacks by al Qaida in Iraq, the mostly homegrown extremist group that targets fellow Sunnis they deem "collaborators" for joining the political process supported by the U.S. government.
In September, Harbi's 9-year-old son Qutaiba was kidnapped and killed, his body dumped in a local stream, said Abdullah, who accompanied his brother to the morgue to identify the boy. U.S. forces confirmed the incident, and also said they knew of a bomb attack on Harbi's home.
"Even after that, we just intensified security and tried to live with these facts," Abdullah said. "We didn't move our families until the raid by Iraqi forces."
Iraqi forces detained Harbi in a Feb.7 raid on his house in the city of Muqdadiya, Abdullah said. Initially held on suspicion of involvement with a homicide, Harbi retained an attorney and was ordered released by a judge for lack of evidence, Abdullah said.
In the few days it took before his release was processed, a special Iraqi counterterrorism force that's said to answer directly to Maliki arrived from Baghdad, took Harbi into custody and has held him without access to an attorney or visitors ever since, his brother and the Diyala security official said. Abdullah said he's called several security offices in hopes of finding out where his brother is being held and what charges he faces, but hasn't received an answer.
"When they took him to Baghdad, all access to him was cut," Abdullah said. "No one has seen him, spoken to him or even heard his voice."
McClatchy also tried to pin down charges against Harbi, but to no avail. The Diyala security official said Harbi "confessed to facilitating a suicide-vest bombing this year and, consequently, we detained him, his driver and two bodyguards."
U.S. forces, who worked closely with Harbi during his stint as the mayor of Muqdadiya and in his long campaign against Sunni insurgents, said they received a different story from Iraqi forces.
"He is currently arrested and is likely held in Baghdad. He was arrested for stealing money from government projects. Any speculation beyond that as to why this happened would be for the (government of Iraq)," said Maj. Lee Peters, spokesman for the U.S. military in northern Iraq.
Harbi's family and friends were gathered around a TV set Friday in hopes of hearing his name announced as part of Allawi's winning coalition, a victory made bittersweet because of his detention. Abdullah said he's not even sure his brother knows he's the second highest vote-getter in the entire province, with 28,273 votes, according to figures released by Iraq's election commission.
Abdullah said the group's excitement turned to fear when they heard Maliki mention the case in a roundabout way. To him, it signaled that his brother might never be freed to take the seat he won in parliament. He said he's never heard of any corruption charges or bombing plots and is convinced the arrest is just another attempt to keep Harbi from giving his constituents a voice in government.
"He who chooses the path of politics, especially in these circumstances, knows he will pay a price," Abdullah said. "He lost the dearest thing to him, his son, and the image is still in my mind of him standing over his son's body and saying, 'They're doing these things to make me stop. I will never stop.'"
(McClatchy special correspondents Sahar Issa in Baghdad and a reporter in Diyala, who cannot be named for security reasons, contributed)