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Iraq to investigate serious vote fraud allegations

Complaints of cheating in Anbar threatens to turn into violence

Electoral officials are examining serious complaints of vote fraud in Iraq's western
Anbar province where Sunni Arab tribal leaders are disputing the provincial election results.

The independent electoral commission has received a flood of complaints about fraud and other violations from the largely Sunni Arab province, Faraj al-Haidari, Iraq's senior electoral official, told Reuters on Wednesday.

Saturday's provincial election was the most peaceful in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. But Anbar has seen tension between Sunni Arab tribes participating for the first time and established parties that ran the province for years.

"Some of these complaints are serious and could be considered 'red' complaints. We may send our officials to verify these complaints on the ground," Haidari said."Red" is the term for complaints which could alter the outcome of the vote, which was held to select leaders in 14 out of Iraq's 18 provinces.

Supporters and rivals of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have said that his State of Law coalition performed surprisingly well in the south of the country, where Shiite religious parties such as the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI) have held sway.

That could lead to a major power shift and strengthen Maliki's hand before national elections later this year.

Maliki, himself a member of the Shiite majority, has been meeting other top Shiites before the official announcement of preliminary results. He met ISCI leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim on Tuesday and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most influential Shiite cleric, on Wednesday.

Some of these complaints are serious and could be considered 'red' complaints. We may send our officials to verify these complaints on the ground

Faraj al-Haidari

Threats could turn into violence

Complaints of cheating among rival parties in Saturday's provincial elections have threatened to boil over into violence in Anbar.

Official figures from the polls have yet to be released, but the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group which holds seats in the national parliament, said unofficial tallies showed it would retain control of the province.

The claims triggered immediate accusations of fraud from tribesmen, many of whom are leaders of the Sahwa, or Awakening, militias which have helped the U.S. military battle al-Qaeda in the province.

The stakes are particularly high in Anbar where a greater majority of Sunni parties did not participate in the 2005 election and many have high hopes of winning seats this time round.

Awakening leaders are threatening to take up arms over what they see as voter fraud at the hands of the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), Iraq's largest Sunni Arab party which has controlled Anbar since 2005 polls mostly boycotted by Sunni Arabs.

Anbar was under curfew for a night and Maliki sent an envoy there to meet with local security forces and urge calm.

Preliminary results are expected on Thursday but final results will not be released until the end of the month, when electoral officials have finished investigating any complaints.