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Iraqi PM calls for dialogue after historic vote
Updated: 2005-01-31 21:52

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's interim prime minister vowed Monday to unite the country's competing ethnic and religious groups, a day after millions of voters defied insurgents to vote in a historic election.

Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi briefs reporters in Baghdad January 31, 2005. "Now is the time for all Iraqis to come together. I call upon those who cast their ballot and those who did not to unite," Allawi said in his first televised address since the end of Sunday's election for a 275-seat national assembly.[Reuters]
"Starting from today, I will begin a new national dialogue to ensure all Iraqis have a voice in the new government," Iyad Allawi said in a televised address, speaking at a conference center once used by Saddam Hussein and his officials.

"The whole world is watching us. As we worked together yesterday to finish dictatorship, let us work together toward a bright future -- Sunnis and Shi'ites, Muslims and Christians, Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen," Allawi said.

The call was an attempt to seize the momentum created by Sunday's poll, when electoral officials estimate around eight million Iraqis turned out to vote, confounding predictions many would be scared away by insurgent threats of a bloodbath.

But although Iraqis queued up enthusiastically to cast their ballots in many places, numbers appeared to be low in Sunni Arab areas where the insurgency is strongest -- highlighting the dangerous communal rifts facing a new government.

"It is time to put the divisions of the past behind us and work together to show the world the power and potential of this great country," said Allawi, who has a chance of being renamed prime minister in the next government.

Shi'ites, who make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population, are widely expected to have won most votes in the election, and officials in the top Shi'ite-led coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, have already claimed a degree of victory.

Shi'ite leaders were quick to issue assurances that they plan to bring the Sunni minority, dominant under Saddam, into the political process.

"We are looking at ways of including Sunnis," said Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum, a former oil minister and candidate on the United Iraqi Alliance list.

"I doubt very much Iraq will witness a civil war in the short or long run. We reassure our brothers that any step Iraq takes must include all parts of Iraq...No one can be left out."


Across much of Iraq there was a sense of accomplishment after the vote, with many people displaying index fingers stained with purple polling ink, proud to have braved insurgent threats against the first multi-party poll in 50 years.

Militants tried to make good on their threat of a bloodbath, killing 35 people in suicide bomb and mortar attacks, but the death toll was far below what some had feared.

Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib attributed the relative calm to a three-day security blitz, in which he said more than 200 suspected insurgents had been detained countrywide.

Praise for the vote poured in from around the world, but experts cautioned that true success would depend on whether Sunni Arabs accept the outcome and join the political process.

While in some Sunni areas many queued through the day to vote, in other towns, notably Baiji, Ramadi and Samarra, almost no voters pitched up. On the other hand, in the Shi'ite south and Kurdish north, turnout was very strong.

Electoral officials said Monday turnout was better than expected in two Sunni provinces, but gave no figures. They also said a first round of counting had been completed and a second stage had begun, but did not say when it would end.


President Bush, who had looked to the vote as a turning point in the troubled 22-month-old U.S. military presence in Iraq, hailed the election as a "resounding success," and hoped it would unite Iraqis and defeat the insurgency.

But prospects for a U.S. withdrawal could be dented if the aftermath of the poll further alienates the once-privileged Sunnis and foments sectarian strife.

U.S. and British officials say violence could well worsen in the weeks ahead as al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and other militants seek revenge on those who voted.

Underlining the risks in Iraq, a British Hercules transport plane crashed northwest of Baghdad shortly before polls closed Sunday. Defense experts said it could have been shot down.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said 10 servicemen were missing, believed killed, in the crash, making it the deadliest incident for Britain since the start of the war.

Hoon said in a statement he was aware of reports the plane may have been shot down but added: "We are not in a position to come to any conclusions until the investigation is complete."

A little-known Islamic militant group whose claims have in the past been discounted said it downed the plane.

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