Opposition cries foul in Kurd polls

SULAIMANIYAH: An opposition party on Sunday claimed there had been violations in the presidential and parliamenary elections in Iraq's self-ruled Kurdish region but said it still expected a strong showing.

The opposition front called "Change" was at the heart of a push for reform in a bid to shake up the political establishment in Iraq's three Kurdish-ruled provinces that have been dominated by two parties for decades.

Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission said 78 percent of 2.5 million eligible voters cast ballots during Saturday's elections. The high turnout apparently was fueled by excitement over the rare show of opposition to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which have been accused of corruption, intimidation and failing to provide services.

Shahou Saeed, a spokesman for the Change list, said it had registered complaints with the electoral commission ranging from what it said was an unwarranted extension of polling hours to balloting by unregistered voters.

The Shams Network, an independent Kurdish electoral observer panel, raised concerns that the ink used to mark the thumbs of voters who had cast ballots could be easily washed off, possibly allowing someone to vote more than once.

"The electoral commission did not allow observers to use their mobile phones. Therefore observers could not send reports about violations," said Hogar Chatto, a spokesman for Shams.

The panel overseeing the vote said the balloting was largely conducted without irregularities but promised to investigate official complaints.

Preliminary results were to be announced Monday, according to a statement by the Iraqi government's media office.

However, early projections based on counts by the parties suggested the PUK and the KDP would retain their overall majority in parliament while the Change list scored big in the city of Sulaimaniyah, a stronghold of the PUK led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

Change is led by Nosherwan Mustafa, a former PUK insider who broke with the party after he was unable to push through reforms.

Mustafa is part of a wave of independent Iraqi politicians trying to break the hold of religious parties and other traditional power brokers by tapping into frustration felt by many Iraqis over perceived failures of the current administrations.

The trend was evident in the Jan. 31 provincial elections held in the rest of the country which saw many Iraq's religious parties lose seats.

"We will form a real opposition front in the next parliament of Kurdistan and we will change the map of the new parliament. We are very optimistic about the results," Saeed said.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, five people were killed in a brazen daylight attack at a popular money exchange office.

The gunmen broke into the al-Nibal money changer in Baghdad's commercial Karrada district shortly before noon, killing three employees and two customers, said two Iraqi police officials. Another 12, including eight employees were wounded.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information to the media.

In April, gunmen using silencer-fitted weapons killed at least seven people during a daylight heist of jewelry stores in Baghdad. In the same month, gunmen used similar tactics during the robbery of an exchange office in the southern city of Basra.

The U.S. military also announced that an Iraqi civilian was killed and three others were wounded when their car was hit by an American armored vehicle north of Baghdad early Sunday morning.

The massive wheeled Stryker vehicle struck the car after it came to an abrupt stop. Two U.S. soldiers also were injured in the accident.

The American convoy was returning to a U.S. base outside the city after conducting a joint patrol with Iraqi forces, the statement said.