BAGHDAD, Iraq – Preliminary election returns Monday showed Iraqi voters divided along ethnic and religious lines with a commanding lead held by the religious Shiite coalition that dominates the current government.
Meanwhile, an Iraqi lawyer said at least 24 top former officials in Saddam Hussein’s regime were freed from jail without charges. They included biological and chemical weapons experts known as “Dr. Germ” and “Mrs. Anthrax.”
Violent demonstrations also broke out across Iraq and the oil minister threatened to resign after the government raised the prices of gasoline and cooking fuel by up to nine times in an attempt to curb a growing black market.
Early vote tallies suggested disappointing results for a secular party led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a U.S. favorite who hoped to bridge the often violent divide that has emerged between followers of rival branches of Islam since the fall of Saddam.
As expected, religious groups, both Shiite and Sunni, were leading in many areas – an indication that Iraqis may have grown more religious or conservative.
Still, the ruling Shiite coalition – known as the United Iraqi Alliance – was unlikely to win the two-thirds majority, or at least 184 seats, needed to avoid a coalition with other parties.
A senior official in the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the main groups in the United Iraqi Alliance, said the alliance was expecting to get about 130 seats.
The alliance is headed by cleric Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, one of the most powerful figures in the country.
“It’s going to be ‘Let’s Make a Deal,’ ” said Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The important thing in some ways was that there was a large vote. The concerns that it would fall along ethnic and sectarian lines were validated.”
U.S. officials hope a coalition government involving Sunni Arabs will weaken a Sunni-led insurgency. Sunnis, a minority group favored under Saddam, voted heavily on Thursday after boycotting earlier elections.
Preliminary results of Thursday’s elections for the 275-member parliament from 11 provinces showed the United Iraqi Alliance winning strong majorities in Baghdad and largely Shiite provinces in the south.
Kurdish parties were overwhelmingly ahead in their three northern provinces, while results from one of the four predominantly Sunni Arab provinces, Salahuddin, showed the Sunni Arab minority winning an overwhelming majority.
In Baghdad province – the country’s biggest electoral district – elections officials said the United Iraqi Alliance took about 59 percent of the votes from 89 percent of ballot boxes counted.
The Sunni Arab Iraqi Accordance Front – which includes some religious groups – received about 19 percent, and the Iraqi National List headed by Allawi, a secular-minded Shiite, trailed with nearly 14 percent.
The elections played a role in the release from prison of the 24 or 25 officials from Saddam’s government, said Badee Izzat Aref, the Iraqi lawyer who made the announcement.
“The release was an American-Iraqi decision and in line with an Iraqi government ruling made in December 2004, but hasn’t been enforced until after the elections in an attempt to ease the political pressure in Iraq,” Aref said.
Among the freed inmates were Rihab Taha, a British-educated biological weapons expert, who was known as “Dr. Germ” for her role in making bioweapons in the 1980s, and Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, known as “Mrs. Anthrax,” a former top Baath Party official and biotech researcher, a legal official in Baghdad said.
Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, would say only that eight individuals formerly designated as high-value detainees were released Saturday after a board process found they were no longer a security threat and no charges would be filed against them.