BAGHDAD Feb 5 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.
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,"
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)