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Middle East
Iraqi poll body rejects criticism
Commission counting votes for national poll says fraud claims are "complete fabrication".
Last Modified: 12 Mar 2010 21:01 GMT
Al-Hayderi said he and his staff were 'surprised and shocked' at the accusations made by some politicians

The Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq (IHEC) has fought back against its critics, after a day of fielding accusations of fraud, malpractice and incompetence.

The IHEC is responsible for counting the votes in the March 7 general elections, and for investigating complaints about the voting process.

In frank interviews with Al Jazeera, senior figures in IHEC expressed frustration and indignation at the slew of criticisms.

They were fully backed up by officials at Unami - the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (TK) - who are dismayed and disappointed at the allegations.

Faraj al-Hayderi, the chairman of IHEC, lashed out at Struan Stevenson, a European MP who had issued a statement claiming there were "suspicious delays" in announcing the results, and that "widespread fraud during the elections ... amounted to a plan to drive Iraq into a crisis".

Al-Hayderi said the allegations were a "complete fabrication", and that Stevenson had no professional contact with the many EU observers who had been stationed in Iraq for the vote.

"He had nothing to do with the Iraqi elections. He's sitting over in Brussels and it's his own opinion," al-Hayderi said.

'Count on schedule'

Concerns about IHEC's ability to handle the volume of paperwork and computer programming involved in processing the election results of about 50,000 polling stations began to emerge when the commission cancelled a scheduled news conference on Tuesday when it had hoped to announce some of the preliminary results.

This led to claims that the count was falling behind schedule.

special report

But on the day the results began to emerge, Sandra Mitchell, Unami director of elections, denied those claims.

"The chairman of IHEC said it would take four days [from the elections]. Today is that day," Mitchell said. 

"From the UN's perspective, there is no delay and the counts are being released on schedule as planned."

She also defended IHEC against charges that it was understaffed, pointing out that they had three times the staff assigned to work on the provincial elections in 2009.

"I don't think you could get many more staff into this facility, or that they could work any harder," Mitchell said.

NYT withdrawal

But the allegations took on a more damaging turn when an article in the New York Times on Friday - since withdrawn by the editor, and replaced with a far more measured piece - claimed that the IHEC computer system was "overloaded and crashed for hours on Wednesday".

That was a malicious distortion, Qasem al-Aboudi, an IHAC spokesman, said.

He explained that the vast amount of data being processed for the election - the software required scans of the original documents to be entered into the database - means the server has to be reset once a day.

"It was not a crash - it was a routine service. At the start it took up to three hours, but now we are much quicker," al-Aboudi said.
 
He also denied that any IHEC counting staff had been sacked for trying to change the voting tallies.

"The count is checked, and checked again", he explained, while agreeing that staff who failed to meet standards had been dismissed.

"We have no time to waste or to lose".

What really raised al-Aboudi's ire was the allegation that an Iraqi parliamentarian had "improperly visited" the offices of IHEC.

In fact, the commission has from the start had an open-door policy to all Iraqi politicians as a confidence-building measure.

They had even encouraged the MP, Hayder al-Ebadi, to bring his own IT specialist, so that he could gain a better understanding of the technology being used - currently the largest computer system operating in Iraq outside the military.

Codes requested

Meanwhile, Mitchell reacted with bafflement to a request by Ahmed Chalabi, an INA coalition member, to be given the "source code" for the IHEC computer system.

"It's like asking for the source codes to, say, a banking system. It would simply allow anyone to hack in, and change all the features. Why would you do that? This is a sensitive database," Mitchell said.

But perhaps the most pernicious of the claims against IHEC and its role as an investigating body this week were charges by members of the Iraqiya Coalition – the leading challenger to Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister.

Mitchell has defended IHEC against charges that it was understaffed

At a news conference in Baghdad, they claimed they had uncovered "rigging to an extent that would render the elections useless", their claims including damaged ballot papers and polling stations failing to post votes.

Unami's staff, who have been closely involved in the planning, execution, supervision and management of the vote, suggested the Iraqiya Coalition produce its evidence - and show it is acting in good faith.

"Give me a polling station number," Mitchell challenged.

"There have been no voluminous complaints of fraud coming from any party," she said.

"We are aware that some political parties are claiming they have filed thousands of complaints ... So where are they?

"When you file a complaint there is a record, a carbon copy. We encourage them to bring us the carbon copies of all their complaints."

But, she stressed, the existing election law mandated a 48-hour period for complaints to be filed from the time of the "infringement".

After that, complaints could not be investigated. So far, there have been less than half the number of complaints filed after the 2009 provincial elections, Mitchell said.

'Point of principle'

Ahmed Alagily, IHEC's director of complaints and legal consultations, told Al Jazeera on Friday that he had received some complaints - he could not say how many - from the Iraqiya Bloc, but also some against Iraqiya's own conduct during the elections.

He said one of the difficulties his staff were having was that some of the objections were on unsigned forms.

"Show me the proof and I'll follow up on it," he said.

"But as long as you keep making allegations like this without putting your name to them or showing me anything ... What can I do for you?"

Al-Haiyeri said he and his staff were "surprised and shocked" at the accusations made by some politicians who were at the same time celebrating their performance at the polls.

"If you win, but you have cast the whole electoral process in doubt, what are you going to do then?" he said.

Al-Hayderi explained this was a point of principle, not aimed at any particular political party.

"I don't care what any of them say. I am not even worried about this. We are continuing to work with complete transparency, we are very confident in our work," al-Hayderi said.

"But my advice to them is: "Don't say anything now you will regret later".

Al-Maliki is locked in a tight contest with Iyad Allawi, an ex-premier, to win the post of prime minister as initial results from four of the country's 18 provinces showed each of them is leading in two provinces.

The results put al-Maliki's State of Law coalition ahead in Najaf and Babil provinces south of Baghdad, while Allawi's secular Iraqiya alliance was topping the list in two provinces north and east of Baghdad, the capital.

Sunday's poll saw more than 6,000 candidates from 86 factions standing for seats in the 325-member parliament.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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