Iraqis see some irregularities in provincial vote


BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi election monitors on Sunday reported multiple irregularities in the country's first provincial vote since U.S. troops left, but were unclear as to whether results would be affected.

In an initial report, two non-governmental organizations, Shams and Tamoz, said over 300 irregularities had been recorded by the seven thousand monitors they had sent across Iraq to cover Saturday's polls.

The vote was a key test of Iraq's short experience with democratic elections because it was the first one run since the U.S. withdrawal in December 2011. Allegations of vote fixing are not uncommon following elections in the country.

In one instance, Hoger Jato of Shams said some security force members had helped specific campaigns while on duty, with some advising voters at polling centers on who to support. Elsewhere, electoral commission employees reportedly failed to check the identities of voters, allowing them to cast ballots on behalf others.

The groups did not say whether the irregularities were widespread enough to significantly affect the election's outcome.

On Sunday evening, a bomb went off in a popular kebab shop in Fallujah, 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad, killing eight and wounding 25, according to police and hospital officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information to reporters.

Violence has ebbed sharply since the peak of Sunni-Shiite fighting that pushed the country to the brink of civil war in 2006 and 2007. But insurgents are still able to stage frequent high-profile attacks.

Earlier in the day, Iraqis began counting votes, unloading hundreds of ballot boxes from trucks and tallying the figures in the heavily guarded counting centers. Employees of the country's independent electoral commission went through the ballots under supervision of political party representatives.

Votes are first manually sorted before being entered into a computerized system. Final results are expected in several days.

Despite widespread violence in the run-up to the election that left at least 14 candidates dead, Saturday's voting was mostly peaceful. A few mortar shells and small bombs struck near polling centers, wounding at least six people.

The turnout stood at 51 percent, the same as at the last provincial elections in 2009. When some eligible voters complained they did not find their names on the voting rolls, the election commission blamed them for not updating their information.

Hours after closing the polls, the U.N. Special Representative, Martin Kobler, praised the vote as well-organized and peaceful.

"Credible elections are critical to the country's stability," Kobler said in a statement.

The voting took place in 12 of Iraq's 18 provinces. Voting was not scheduled in the ethnically-mixed province of Tamim, where ethnic groups have not reached a power-sharing deal. The last election for local officials there was in 2005. Elections were also delayed in two provinces because of unstable security conditions, and the country's autonomous three-province northern region was not included.

Thousands of candidates from 50 electoral blocs are vying for 378 seats on provincial councils. The Iraqi constitution does not give wide powers to provincial councils, but they have some say on security matters. They also negotiate local business deals and allocate funds.