Shiite ticket has big lead in Iraq vote
U.S.-backed Prime Minister Ayad Allawi was trailing a Shiite ticket with ties to Iran in Iraq's historic election, according to partial returns released Friday. One U.S. soldier was killed and seven wounded in the north, and gunmen seized an Italian journalist in Baghdad.
The United Iraqi Alliance, endorsed by Iraq's top Shiite clerics, captured more than two-thirds of the 3.3 million votes counted so far, the election commission said. The ticket headed by Allawi, a secular Shiite, had about 18 percent — or more than 579,700 votes.
Those latest partial figures from Sunday's contest for 275 National Assembly seats came from 10 of Iraq's 18 provinces, said Hamdiyah al-Husseini, an election commission official. All 10 provinces have heavy Shiite populations, and the Alliance had been expected to do well there. So far, 45 percent of the vote has been counted in Baghdad, with varying percentages tallied in the other nine provinces.
Nevertheless, the huge lead that the Shiites were rolling up among their core constituency in the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq pointed to the likelihood of a tremendous victory.
An Alliance win would seal the Shiite majority's bid to claim power after centuries of domination by Sunni Arabs, including years of oppression by Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime.
The Shiite ticket was also running strong among Iraqis who voted in 14 foreign countries. The International Organization for Migration, which supervised the expatriate vote, said the Shiite Alliance won about 36 percent of the 263,685 absentee ballots. The Kurdish Alliance List took nearly 30 percent, and Allawi's ticket was third with about 9 percent.
Allawi, who lived in exile in Britain during Saddam's rule, had been expected to draw support from many voters outside Iraq.
Seats in the National Assembly will be apportioned according to each faction's percentage of the nationwide vote. A two-thirds majority in the assembly — possibly in a coalition with Kurds and others — would enable the cleric-backed ticket to wield considerable influence in drafting the new constitution and shaping a democratic Iraq.
The leader of the Shiite ticket, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, has promised an inclusive government and a role for the Sunnis and others in drafting the constitution — the major task of the new assembly.
Al-Hakim and other figures in the Alliance spent years in exile in mainly Shiite Iran, but they insist they have no intention of transforming Iraq into a clerical-run state. The ticket was endorsed by Iraq's most revered top Shiite cleric, the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
The signs of a strong Shiite victory have sparked fears that the Sunni Arab minority will not accept any new government that emerges from the election, fueling the mainly Sunni insurgency.
The terror group al-Qaida in Iraq vowed new attacks against military targets in the coming days in an Internet statement posted Friday. The group promised "victories, qualitative operations and the killing of the heads of the infidels and apostates."
The statement alleged to be from al-Qaida in Iraq but the authenticity of online statements cannot be verified.
In the latest insurgent attacks, one American soldier was killed Friday and seven others were wounded by a roadside bomb outside Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad, the U.S. command said. Another American soldier died Thursday when a U.S. Army Stryker combat vehicle detonated anti-tank mines in Mosul.
At least 1,443 American military personnel have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.
Meanwhile, gunmen seized Giuliana Sgrena, a journalist for the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, in a hail of gunfire after blocking her car near the Baghdad University compound. She had gone to interview refugees from Fallujah and to attend Friday prayers at a nearby mosque, according to Italian radio journalist Barbara Schiavulli.
Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said Sgrena may have been taken by a Sunni gang "who shot at our martyrs of Nasiriyah," referring to the November 2003 bombing of Italian paramilitary barracks in a southern Shiite city.
The 56-year-old Sgrena is the second Italian journalist kidnapped in Iraq, and at least the ninth Italian seized here in recent months. Freelance Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni was abducted and killed in August.
Schiavulli said she received a call from Sgrena's cell phone as the kidnapping was under way. "I couldn't hear anyone talking. ... I heard people shooting," Schiavulli said. "I kept saying, 'Giuliana, Giuliana,' and no answer."
Later, a statement posted on two Islamic militant Web sites in the name of the little-known Islamic Jihad Organization claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and gave Italy 72 hours to withdraw its troops from Iraq. It did not say what would happen after the time passed.
The statement included no picture of the victim or other evidence that the claim was genuine. An official at the Italian Foreign Ministry said authorities were looking into the claim but said they were "far from taking it too seriously" at this stage.
More than 190 foreigners have been abducted in Iraq over the past year. At least 13 remain missing — including a French woman reporter seized last month. More than 30 were killed and the rest were freed or escaped.
U.S. military planners hope that building up Iraqi security forces will help bring stability to the country and allow the Americans to hand over responsibility for fighting the insurgents.
"Our ticket out of here is not going to be written through constant combat operations — we'd be here forever doing that," Brig. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, deputy commander of the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division, told The Associated Press. "Our ticket out of here is the Iraqi security forces."
Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander of the training effort, praised the Iraqi security forces' performance during the election and promised that "in the months ahead we'll see the addition of a good number of adviser teams that will work with Iraqi elements" in training programs.
There are currently 136,000 members of the Iraqi security forces and military, he told reporters at the Pentagon.