Shiites Show Strong Lead in Iraq Returns

By SAMEER N. YACOUB

Associated Press

8:22 AM PST, February 4, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq — A new, partial tally of votes Friday from Iraq's landmark elections showed a Shiite coalition whose leaders have close ties to Iran rolling up a strong lead over other tickets, including that of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

The United Iraqi Alliance, which has the endorsement of Iraq's top Shiite clerics, won more than two-thirds of the 3.3 million votes counted so far, the election commission said. Allawi's ticket was running second with more than 579,700 votes.

In new violence, gunmen kidnapped an Italian journalist in a hail of gunfire from a central Baghdad street where she had been conducting interviews. Two U.S. soldiers were killed and eight wounded by roadside bombs in northern Iraq, and an Iraqi contractor working with the American military was gunned down in a drive-by shooting Friday west of the capital.

The new election figures represented partial returns from 10 of Iraq's 18 provinces, said Hamdiyah al-Husseini, an election commission official. All 10 provinces have heavy Shiite populations, and the Alliance had been expected to run strong in those areas.

For example, the returns included the 15 percent of votes in Basra provinces counted and certified so far, and 80 percent tallied in the less densely populated Muthanna province. Votes from 35 percent of the more than 5,200 polling centers around the country have been counted, al-Husseini said.

No returns have been released from mainly Sunni provinces north and west of the capital. Sunni Arabs are believed to have stayed away from the polls in large numbers -- either out of fear of retaliation or anger at a vote held while U.S. troops are in the country.

That has sparked fears that the Sunni Arab minority will reject any government and constitution that emerge from the election, adding fuel to the mainly Sunni insurgency that has plagued Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein nearly two years ago.

Shiite Muslims, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, turned out in droves, seizing the opportunity to turn their majority status in Iraq into political power for the first time. The Alliance -- which was endorsed by the widely revered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani -- has reaped the greatest benefit, even though Allawi is a secular Shiite.

The Alliance's leader, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, and others among its top candidates spent years of exile in Iran, helping build a movement against Saddam and building ties with the regime there. Though many clerics are on the ticket, its officials have said they don't seek to impose Islamic law in Iraq.

The number of seats a political faction wins in the 275-member National Assembly will be based on the proportion of votes each faction receives. Around 14 million Iraqis were eligible to vote, although the turnout in Sunday's vote has not been announced. Around 265,000 Iraqis abroad also cast ballots in 14 countries.

Officials said partial counts showed the main Kurdish faction held the lead in the overseas vote, with 29 percent. Large Kurdish populations turned out in European nations, in particular, though the Alliance had a large vote from Iraqis living in Iran.

As the partial returns continue to be tallied in Baghdad, election officials also announced that they were investigating allegations of voting irregularities in Mosul and other areas. The complaints range from a shortage of ballots to polling stations that never opened because of the volatile security conditions.

Problems in Mosul could lead to an outcry from a variety of communities that they were squeezed out of the balloting: Mosul and surrounding Ninevah province have large Sunni Arab, Kurdish and Christian populations.

Insurgents are launching new attacks across the country and battling American and Iraqi security troops in scattered clashes following the easing of security measures that had been in place to guard last weekend's elections. At least 33 people have been killed in violence since Wednesday night.

In Baghdad, Giuliana Sgrena, a journalist for the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, was kidnapped by gunmen who blocked her car near the Baghdad University compound, police said.

She had gone to the neighborhood to interview refugees from Fallujah and then went on to Friday prayer services at a nearby mosque, colleague Barbara Schiavulli, an Italian radio journalist, told The Associated Press.

Schiavulli said she received a call from Sgrena's cell phone when the kidnapping was apparently under way. "I couldn't hear anyone talking. ... I heard people shooting" and the sound of people splashing through the puddles left by a heavy overnight rain, Schiavulli said.

"I kept saying, 'Giuliana, Giuliana,' and no answer," Schiavulli said.

Repeated calls after to Sgrena's cell phone went unanswered, until a final call, when someone answered without speaking, then hung up, Schiavulli said. The missing woman's cell phone then went dead.

Sgrena's Iraqi translator and a security guard at the university said the kidnappers appeared to have been waiting for her, blocking her path with a car. University security guards opened fire at the kidnappers, who dragged Sgrena into a vehicle and sped away. An Italian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said about eight kidnappers were involved in the assault.

Sgrena is at least the second Italian journalist kidnapped in Iraq, and at least the ninth Italian citizen seized in Iraq in recent months. Freelance Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni was abducted and killed in August.

More than 180 foreigners have been abducted in Iraq over the past year, many of them by insurgents trying to drive U.S. troops and foreigners working on reconstruction out of the country. At least 10 remain in the hands of their captors, more than 30 were killed and the rest were freed or escaped.

Meanwhile, in Mosul, a U.S. military Stryker combat vehicle rolled over several anti-tank mines Thursday, killing an American soldier and injuring another. Another U.S. soldier died Friday when a roadside bomb hit a patrol near Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad. Seven soldiers were wounded, the U.S. military said.

At least 1,443 American military personnel have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.

West of the capital on Friday, an Iraqi contractor was gunned down by assailants who pulled up next to his car on the dangerous desert highway running out to Baghdad International Airport. The man was in charge of a road construction project inside the airport complex that was contracted by the American military, said Iraqi police Lt. Akram al-Zoubaie.

Overnight in northern Baghdad, gunmen entered a Shiite mosque, ordered several guards to leave the building and then rigged it with explosives, area residents said. The blast blew a small hole in one wall of the Tawhid Mosque.