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Sunni tribes protest Iraq elections

Groups threaten violence if rivals stay in power

By Monte Morin And Caesar Ahmed Los Angeles Times

RAMADI, Iraq – Provincial elections that were meant to strengthen democratic rule in Iraq and distribute power more equally are now threatening to upend almost two years of peace in Anbar province, the vast western desert where al-Qaida in Iraq once operated freely.

With preliminary polling results scheduled for release as early as Thursday, tribes of the Anbar Awakening and other clans that helped U.S. forces crush the insurgency here have charged that last Saturday’s elections were a sham. The tribes insist that they were double-crossed by the region’s sitting government and suggest menacingly that violence will return to Anbar if their rivals continue to hold power.

At best, the dispute is pure political theater and will end with the rivals sharing power. At worst, the struggle will spark a new cycle of violence.

Any return to violence would carry deep consequences. The cultivation of the Awakening tribes as allies against Islamist militants regarded during the Bush administration as a key success. The alliances have served as the model for operations throughout Iraq and in Afghanistan.

“An honest dictatorship is better than a fake democracy,” the Awakening’s leader, Sheik Ahmed Buzaigh abu Risha, declared from his heavily guarded compound in Ramadi on Wednesday. “There will be very harsh consequences if this false election stands. We won’t let them form a government.”

Tribal sheiks and their followers here in Ramadi and in Fallujah charge that their political rivals gained control of local election offices and stuffed ballot boxes on the day after the elections. Tribal candidates insist the voter turnout was half of the 40 percent of eligibles that election officials reported, and that half of all the ballots are false.

On Wednesday, the Independent High Electoral Commission sent a special delegation to the province to investigate the claims.

“We do not believe in these results, and we will not work with the next provincial government,” a burly Sheik Hamid Hayis said over tea in his estate’s ornate meeting hall. Hayis fought al-Qaida operatives in Ramadi in the early days of the Awakening movement.

Enmity between the Iraqi Islamic Party and the tribes of the Anbar Awakening is rooted in the party’s quick rise to power following the 2005 provincial elections, when fewer than 2 percent of Anbar’s registered voters cast ballots. From that point on, tribal leaders say, IIP members sought only to enrich themselves at the people’s expense – a charge that the party has rejected.

Over the last four years, the party has been accused by the tribes of mismanaging contracts worth tens of millions of dollars for medical facilities and communications networks.

“They are liars,” Hayis booms. “They claim to be religious, but we have pictures of them with their girlfriends, hugging and standing under a tree!”

For their part, the tribes have failed to present a united front and provide voters with an alternative to the IIP. Critics say they are just as focused on enriching themselves with contracts handed out by U.S. officials and the military, whose support elevated their status and upset the age-old pecking order here.

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