A senior Sunni tribal leader claimed Wednesday to have hundreds of documents proving fraud in weekend elections in Anbar province, escalating a crisis that has threatened to reignite violence in the former insurgent stronghold.
Iraq's electoral commission, which is overseeing the process, promised it was taking the complaints seriously and warned the findings from an investigation could affect election results for the province.
Signaling the high stakes involved, a prominent national Sunni lawmaker traveled to Anbar province to try to mediate the dispute, which has pitted the tribal leaders against a rival Sunni party that is part of the national government.
"We came to Anbar province to ease the situation because there is a lot of tension," said Saleh al-Mutlaq. "There was a lot of fraud. Its effects will be great unless it is resolved."
Complaints have marred outcome
Official early returns were due to be released on Thursday. But complaints about irregularities based on projections by political parties already have marred the outcome.
Anbar, once the heart of the insurgency before a decision by Sunni tribal leaders to turn against al-Qaida in Iraq, was one of 14 of the country's 18 provinces holding elections for local councils on Saturday.
The overall vote took place without major violence and was hailed by President Barack Obama as a major achievement on the country's path to stability after nearly six years of war. It was being watched as a measure of stability as U.S. forces begin to draw down.
But officials said before the balloting that the ultimate test of the election was whether the Iraqi public perceived the outcome as fair.
The allegations by the members of the so-called Awakening Council appear to be among the most serious. The tribal group had hoped to win power in Anbar, believing it was entitled because of its contribution to routing al-Qaida.
Awakening Council leader Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha stepped up his rhetoric on Wednesday, saying local election officials were linked to the rival Iraqi Islamic Party and were complicit in the fraud.
Number of votes inflated in Anbar?
He told Al-Arabiya television station that his group had "hundreds of documents" to prove the number of votes was inflated in Anbar. "They were not neutral," he said.
Local electoral commission officials in Anbar could not immediately be reached for comment, and there was no way to independently verify the claims.
A member of the central Independent High Electoral Commission, Hamdiyah al-Husseini, said the commission had received complaints against several voting centers in Anbar and was investigating.
"The complaint is a red one, which means that if proven correct, the consequences would be to invalidate the votes," she said.
Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, expressed concern that dissatisfaction with the results could lead to violence.
"Only a fraction of those who competed will be elected," Austin told reporters Wednesday. "It is my hope that all of the candidates that participated and were not elected, will support the newly elected provincial councils."
Biggest loser may be biggest Shiite party
Unofficial early results also showed that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's allies — the Coalition of the State of Law — finished first in 10 of the 14 provinces where elections were held Saturday, Iraqi lawmaker Abbas al-Bayati said.
But al-Bayati told Associated Press Television News that the prime minister's coalition would reach out to other parties to form alliances on the ruling provincial councils.
If the projections prove correct, the biggest loser would appear to be the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council — the biggest Shiite party, which has close ties to Iran and has wielded power throughout the south for years.
On Wednesday, al-Maliki traveled to the holy city of Najaf to brief the country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, about the election.
A statement by the prime minister's office said he told al-Sistani that the elections were carried out "in an honest way" and that if anyone maintains otherwise, he should provide proof.
The statement said al-Sistani insisted that the newly elected officials should deliver services to the people.