Power vacuum

A major Shiite coalition claims an unofficial victory, pledges to reach out to minorities and says it will ask the U.S. to set a timetable for leaving. But other Iraqis think a quick withdrawal is nonsense.

Published February 2, 2005 2:36PM (EST)

The leader of a powerful Shiite coalition claimed "a sweeping victory" in the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq but pledged to include minority groups, including Sunni Arabs, in the running of the country. Election officials were starting the second stage of a long vote-counting process Tuesday, and official results are not expected for at least a week. The election was Iraq's first parliamentary vote in 50 years.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which heads the Shiite coalition, said his group had won the vote. Although he did not give evidence for his claim, most observers expected the coalition, known as the United Iraqi Alliance, to dominate the poll. "The United Iraqi Alliance scored a sweeping victory," Hakim said. "We know that the majority of those who voted cast their vote for the alliance."

Vote totals were being checked, then added up by computer, after first tallies were completed by hand at polling stations nationwide. Busloads of ballots were shipped under guard to Baghdad's fortified Green Zone.

Hakim, who has spent most of the past 20 years living in exile in Iran, said his party would reach out to other groups when the parliament began writing a new constitution for the country.

Other parties representing Kurds and secular Shiites are expected to do well, but a much lower turnout among the Sunni minority means they could be underrepresented. "We don't want anyone to be marginalized. We want everyone to take part in writing the constitution," Hakim told Reuters. "We will defend the rights of all minorities and all groups no matter how small they are." He said his coalition would talk to U.S. commanders about a timetable for withdrawing troops. Most politicians, however, accept that there is not going to be an immediate departure of the 140,000 American troops still in Iraq.

Iraq's U.S.-appointed interim president, Ghazi al-Yawar, said Tuesday that some U.S. troops could leave the country by the end of the year but that it would be wrong to demand their immediate withdrawal. "It's only complete nonsense to ask the troops to leave in this chaos and this vacuum of power," he said. "But by the end of this year there could begin to be a reduction in foreign forces if there is an improvement in the capability of the Iraqi security forces." Yawar is one of the few Sunni Arabs likely to be elected to the new parliament.

Hazem Sha'alan, the interim defense minister and a senior member of Yawar's party, said it would take time for Iraqi forces to become strong enough to work alone.

In recent days Iraqi armored vehicles and aging tanks have appeared in Baghdad, and the number of police and Iraqi national guard members in the city appears to have increased significantly.

Although insurgents failed to disrupt the election, there is little sense that the guerrilla war that has shaped the past 22 months is on the wane. "We don't want to have foreign troops in our country," Sha'alan said. "But at the same time we believe these forces should stay for some time, until we are able to control the borders and establish a new modern army, and we have efficient intelligence. At that time ... we'll ask them to leave."

Most of the big political parties included a demand for a timetable for the withdrawal of the U.S. military in their election manifestos. But in a CNN interview Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld hinted that there was no timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops: "It's not a month or a year. It's condition based," he said, in his first comments since the election.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, with the election completed and the ballots safely in Baghdad, Iraqi authorities eased the severe security measures that had been put in place to protect voters and polling centers. The hours of the nighttime curfew have been reduced, and now extend from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Royal Jordanian Airlines and Iraqi Airways have resumed flights to and from Baghdad. And vehicles can now cross the border between Iraq and Syria at Tanaf. On Tuesday, a five-mile line of buses loaded with goods was waiting on the Syrian side to cross at Yarubiya, which leads to the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, but that crossing point remained closed.

By Rory McCarthy

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