updated 3/1/2009 12:42:02 PM ET 2009-03-01T17:42:02

About 2,000 Shiites staged marches Sunday to protest the results of provincial elections in Iraq's tense Diyala province — the first significant street protests against the election results.

The demonstrators in the Shiite enclaves of Muqdadiyah and Khalis claimed Shiites were the victims of fraud and were denied seats on the influential provincial council.

Members of Sunni tribes known as Awakening Councils in Anbar province took to the streets alleging fraud in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 31 vote, but were satisfied with the outcome that was announced several weeks later.

Under heavy guard, the protesters in Diyala — waving Iraqi flags and chanting "No to sectarianism" — also demanded the election commission be replaced, alleging a Sunni bias.

A mix of sectarian and ethnic groups
The rural province holds a mix of Iraq's main sectarian and ethnic groups — Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds — and has been a flashpoint for sectarian bloodshed and attacks on U.S. forces and Iraqi police.

Violence has ebbed in the area after a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq and a Shiite militia cease-fire, but tensions have been rising between mainly Sunni Arabs and Kurds, particularly in the far north of the province. The insurgency also remains active despite numerous U.S.-Iraqi military operations.

Sunnis won 15 seats on the incoming council. Kurds took six and Shiites had five. A secular party won three. The current council is composed of 20 Shiites, 14 Sunnis and seven Kurds.

The elections were seen as a chance to extend the Sunni political voice and test the strength of main Shiite parties before national races later this year.

The provincial councils have no direct sway over national affairs but carry wide powers over regional matters such as business deals and local security.

The fact that the vote occurred without major violence also was considered a success for the Iraqi forces who are trying to prove they can take the lead in providing security as the Americans begin to draw down.

Faraj al-Haidari, the head of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission that's overseeing the process, said an appeals period to consider challenges to the results would end March 9 and the new councils would be seated March 24.

Another protest planned
Saja Qadouri, a member of the current provincial council in Diyala, said organizers wanted to hold the protests Feb. 12 but decided to delay them until they could get official approval. Another protest was planned Monday in the provincial capital of Baqouba, she said.

Qadouri claimed large number of Shiite voters could not find their names on eligible voter lists at the polling centers while displaced people who had been driven from their homes by the violence had been unable to cast ballots.

The vote was tainted by allegations of fraud and irregularities in several provinces.

The electoral commission said ballots in more than 30 polling stations nationwide were nullified because of fraud but that was not enough to declare the election a failure.

One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to talk about the vote to media, said the most widespread fraud appeared to have occurred in Diyala.

Al-Haidari said violations were scattered and all complaints would be decided by the appeals panel.

"We never expected to make everybody happy and we knew that losers would start to launch accusations against the electoral commission," he said. "Yet we are confident that our employees have done their jobs in a correct and honest way."

Oil price drop presents problems
In another political development, the deputy speaker of parliament Khalid al-Attiyah blamed the delay in passing Iraq's 2009 draft budget on a dispute between the finance and economic committees.

Ratification of the $64 billion budget proposal has been pushed back due to calls for further cuts, highlighting the financial squeeze facing Iraq as oil prices drop.

Al-Attiyah said the vote had been postponed until Tuesday.

In violence Sunday, a suicide bomber targeted an anti-insurgent Sunni tribal leader near Fallujah, killing the son of Sheik Khalid al-Eifan.

The U.S. military said a Marine died Saturday in a non-combat related incident in Anbar province, raising to at least 4,253 the number of U.S. troop deaths since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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