Iraqis protest in Kirkuk over alleged voting fraud

KIRKUK, Iraq — Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside an election office in this northern Iraqi city Wednesday to protest alleged fraud in last week's parliamentary elections.

The head of Iraq's national election commission said at a news conference that armed men had taken over the election office and that the workers inside were "in effect, hostages," but local officials and witnesses disputed that account, saying there was no sign of weapons at what appeared to be a peaceful demonstration.

They said hundreds of ethnic Turkmen and Arab demonstrators massed outside the offices to protest alleged fraud after early returns showed a Kurdish party winning most of the vote. Oil-rich Kirkuk is at the heart of a long-running dispute between the Kurds, who claim it as part of their autonomous region, and the central government in Baghdad. The city's Arab and Turkmen communities side with the central government.

"Everyone is asking for one thing only, we are asking for the ballot boxes to be open, even if it's just one box," said Sheikh Amer al-Jabouri, one of the demonstrators.

"People wanted a change and they voted in large numbers to make that change, but thousands of votes were not able to be cast, people were stopped from going to vote," said Tahrir al-Obaidi, a lawyer who joined the demonstration.

Kirkuk Governor Rakan al-Jabouri told The Associated Press no one was being held hostage.

Iraq rolled out a new electronic voting system for the first time for Saturday's nationwide parliamentary elections, leading many voters to complain of irregularities. In Baghdad, voters said election officials failed to deliver new ID cards in time, preventing them from voting.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called on Iraqis to respect the results.

Several parties complained of fraud, but demonstrations have been limited largely to Kirkuk, and the leading blocs are moving ahead with backroom talks over forming a new government. The process could take months.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a political party known as the PUK, won the largest share of the Kirkuk vote, with 90 percent of the ballots counted. But elections commissioner Riad al-Badran, who had alleged the armed takeover of the election office, said election workers were unable to send results from 186 ballot boxes.

Tensions have run high in Kirkuk since federal forces seized control of the city last year, pushing out Kurdish militias that had assumed control more than four years earlier, when the Islamic State group swept across much of northern Iraq.

At a press conference on Tuesday, al-Abadi urged the election commission to address any allegations of fraud as quickly as possible. He said the commission could resort to a national recount by hand if wide discrepancies were found between paper ballots and machine counts.

A coalition organized by the populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has captured the largest share of the national vote, with more than 90 percent of the ballots counted. The commission is yet to release the results from the expatriate and armed forces vote.

The elections, the first since al-Abadi declared victory over the Islamic State group last December, passed without any reports of major violence.

Turnout was 44 percent, the lowest since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein. Iraqis are skeptical of a political class that has been unable to combat corruption and create jobs.

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