Shiite alliance takes commanding lead in parliamentary elections
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Preliminary election returns Monday showed Iraqi voters divided along ethnic and religious lines with a commanding lead held by the religious Shiite coalition that dominates the current government.Meanwhile, an Iraqi lawyer said at least 24 top former officials in Saddam Hussein’s regime were freed from jail without charges. They included biological and chemical weapons experts known as “Dr. Germ” and “Mrs. Anthrax.”Violent demonstrations also broke out across Iraq and the oil minister threatened to resign after the government raised the prices of gasoline and cooking fuel by up to nine times. And a militant group released a video of the purported killing of an American hostage.Early vote tallies suggested disappointing results for a secular party led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a U.S. favorite who hoped to bridge the often violent divide that has emerged between followers of rival branches of Islam since the fall of Saddam.As expected, religious groups, both Shiite and Sunni, were leading in many areas – an indication that Iraqis may have grown more religious or conservative.Still, the ruling Shiite coalition – known as the United Iraqi Alliance and endorsed by Iraq’s most prominent cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – was unlikely to win the two-thirds majority, or at least 184 seats, needed to avoid a coalition with other parties.A senior official in the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the main groups in the United Iraqi Alliance, said the alliance was expecting to get about 130 seats.”The United Iraqi Alliance strongly believes that all the various components of the Iraqi people should participate in the decision making, including forming the upcoming government. This means that the new Iraqi government will be a national unity government,” Redha Jawad Taqi said.The alliance is headed by cleric Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, one of the most powerful figures in the country.”It’s going to be ‘Let’s Make a Deal,” said Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The important thing in some ways was that there was a large vote. The concerns that it would fall along ethnic and sectarian lines were validated.”U.S. officials hope a coalition government involving Sunni Arabs will weaken a Sunni-led insurgency. Sunnis, a minority group favored under Saddam, voted heavily on Thursday after boycotting earlier elections.Preliminary results of Thursday’s elections for the 275-member parliament from 11 provinces showed the United Iraqi Alliance winning strong majorities in Baghdad and largely Shiite provinces in the south.Kurdish parties were overwhelmingly ahead in their three northern provinces, while results from one of the four predominantly Sunni Arab provinces, Salahuddin, showed the Sunni Arab minority winning an overwhelming majority.In Baghdad province – the country’s biggest electoral district – elections officials said the United Iraqi Alliance took about 59 percent of the votes from 89 percent of ballot boxes counted.The Sunni Arab Iraqi Accordance Front – which includes some religious groups – received about 19 percent, and the Iraqi National List headed by Allawi, a secular-minded Shiite, trailed with nearly 14 percent.Results from southern Basra province, also mixed but predominantly Shiite, saw the United Iraqi Alliance significantly ahead, winning 612,206 votes with 98 percent of ballot boxes counted. Allawi’s list was far behind in second with 87,134 votes, while the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front trailed with 36,997 votes.By comparison, the United Iraqi Alliance received less than 8 percent in Saddam’s home province of Salahuddin, where 89 percent of the ballot boxes were counted. Allawi garnered about 10 percent. Most of the rest went to Sunni Arab groups.The elections played a role in the release from prison of the 24 or 25 officials from Saddam’s government, said Badee Izzat Aref, the Iraqi lawyer who made the announcement.”The release was an American-Iraqi decision and in line with an Iraqi government ruling made in December 2004, but hasn’t been enforced until after the elections in an attempt to ease the political pressure in Iraq,” Aref said.Among the freed inmates were Rihab Taha, a British-educated biological weapons expert, who was known as “Dr. Germ” for her role in making bio-weapons in the 1980s, and Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, known as “Mrs. Anthrax,” a former top Baath Party official and biotech researcher, a legal official in Baghdad said.Ammash was number 39, or the five of hearts on America’s most-wanted deck of cards list. She was captured on May 9, 2003.”Because of security reasons, some of them want to leave the country,” he said. He declined to elaborate, but noted “some have already left Iraq today.”Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, would say only that eight individuals formerly designated as high-value detainees were released Saturday after a board process found they were no longer a security threat and no charges would be filed against them.Neither the U.S. military or Iraqi officials would disclose any of the names, but the legal official in Baghdad said Taha and Ammash were among those released.The official, who asked not to be identified because of fear of retribution from former Baathists, said those released also included Hossam Mohammed Amin, head of the weapons inspections directorate, and Aseel Tabra, an Iraqi Olympic Committee official under Odai Saddam Hussein, the former leader’s son.The violent protests over gas prices came after the Cabinet raised the prices of gasoline, diesel, kerosene and cooking gas on Sunday to curb a growing black market.The price of a liter of imported and super gasoline was raised to 17 cents, which is a fivefold increase from previous prices. There are about 3.8 liters in a gallon, meaning the new price is about 65 cents a gallon.The price of locally produced gasoline was raised about sevenfold to about 12 cents per liter, or about 46 cents a gallon.In Amarah, 180 miles southeast of Baghdad, police fired into the air to disperse hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the provincial government headquarters.The demonstrators, however, did not leave, and some scuffled with police. Protesters also briefly blocked the main road between Amarah, Basra and Baghdad.Drivers blocked roads and burned tires near fuel stations in the southern city of Basra, and hundreds of Iraqis demonstrated outside the governor’s headquarters to protest the price increases.In Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, about 500 people demonstrated against the price hikes, giving a letter of protest to the city council to hand over to Cabinet ministers.—Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Patrick Quinn and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad, and Jim Krane in Dubai contributed to this report.