Strains ease,no clear poll winner in Iraq wild west

BAGHDAD Thu Feb 5, 2009 11:32pm IST

BAGHDAD Feb 5 (Reuters) - Local elections produced no clear winner in Iraq's western desert, once the heartland of the Sunni Islamist insurgency against the U.S. invasion, but tribal chiefs who had threatened war if they did not win said they were satisfied with the result.

In the rest of the country, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's allies triumphed across the Shi'ite Muslim south and in the north, Sunni Arabs clawed back some power from ethnic Kurds, preliminary results from the regional vote showed on Thursday.

But in Anbar province, the battle in the Jan. 31 provincial vote was between Sunni groups, restless in post-invasion Iraq after dominating the country under Saddam Hussein.

A group led by secular Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlaq won with 17.6 percent in Anbar, and U.S.-backed tribal leaders who helped oust al Qaeda came next with 17.1 percent.

Candidates backed by their religious rivals, the incumbent Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), came third at 15.9 percent.

In the days before the results, the tribal chiefs who head U.S.-funded neighbourhood patrols called "Awakening Councils" had accused the Islamic Party of trying to steal the vote and had vowed to take up arms if it was allowed to win.

"We are satisfied with the results of the election," one of the Awakening leaders, sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, told Reuters on the telephone, before he was drowned out by wild celebrations in the background at his home in the provincial capital Ramadi.

"We are not wary of the victory of the al-Mutlaq list because we have already agreed with him to form an alliance. But we are not giving up our complaints against vote fraud that we submitted to (the electoral commission)."

The vote for Mutlaq's secular group could be seen as a rejection of the Sunni Islamist militancy that for a while took hold in Anbar, a vast and arid province bordering Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

SURPRISE WINNER

Mutlaq complained, despite being a surprise winner, that his candidates should have won an even bigger share of the vote.

"It is good as a first step. But it was not as we expected. We expected a transparent election. I believe there was fraud," he said.

Mutlaq said he would form an alliance with the Awakening leaders to set up Anbar's next provincial council, which will select its governor.

The head of Iraqi security forces in Anbar, Major-General Mudhni al-Mushhin, said all was calm and no curfew was needed.

"The situation is very good. There is no shooting," he said.

The local election was the most peaceful ballot in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and boosted hopes for an end to the sectarian bloodshed between majority Shi'ites and Sunnis.

But there were tensions in Anbar before the preliminary results were announced, and a suicide bombing elsewhere in the country on Thursday in which 15 people were killed were reminders that recent security gains remain fragile.

Analysts say the period immediately after the results could be the most volatile if losers are reluctant to give up their power, prestige and access to patronage.

(Additional reporting by Wisam Mohammed, Missy Ryan, Khalid al-Ansary in Baghdad and Fadhel al-Badrani)

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