By Ahmed Aboulenein
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A storage site housing half of Baghdad’s ballot boxes from Iraq’s parliamentary election in May caught fire on Sunday, just days after parliament demanded a nationwide recount of votes, drawing calls for the election to be re-run.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi described the fire as a “plot” aimed at Iraq’s democracy.
The timing of the fire undermined the results of an election whose validity was already in doubt. Fewer than 45 percent of voters cast a ballot, a record low, and allegations of fraud began almost immediately after the vote.
“Burning election warehouses … is a plot to harm the nation and its democracy. We will take all necessary measures and strike with an iron fist all who undermine the security of the nation and its citizens,” Abadi said in a statement.
Experts would conduct an investigation and prepare a detailed report on how the fire started, he said.
An Interior Ministry spokesman said the fire was confined to one of four warehouses at the site. State television said ballot boxes were moved to another location under heavy security.
Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji later told a local television channel that “not a single box was burned.”
Abadi, whose electoral alliance came third in the election, had said on Tuesday that a government investigation had found serious violations and blamed Iraq’s independent elections commission for most of them.
Parliament mandated a full manual recount the next day. The Independent High Elections Commission had used electronic vote- counting devices to tally the results.
A recount could undermine nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a long-time adversary of the United States whose bloc won the largest number of seats in the election. One of Sadr’s top aides expressed concern that some parties were trying to sabotage the cleric’s victory.
CALLS FOR RE-RUN
Salim al-Jabouri, the outgoing speaker of parliament, said the fire showed the election should be repeated.
“The crime of burning ballot-box storage warehouses in the Rusafa area is a deliberate act, a planned crime, aimed at hiding instances of fraud and manipulation of votes, lying to the Iraqi people and changing their will and choices,” he said in a statement.
Jabouri narrowly lost his seat in May and had been one of the strongest proponents of a recount before the fire.
Opponents of the recount, mostly those whose blocs did well in the election, point out that many who voted for it were lawmakers who lost their seat. Sadr’s bloc boycotted the parliamentary session in which the vote took place.
Jabouri’s call was seconded by Vice President Iyad Allawi, the leader of the electoral alliance Jabouri ran as part of.
Top Sadr aide Dhiaa al-Asadi said the fire was a plot aimed at forcing a repeat of the election and hiding fraud.
“Whoever burned the election equipment and document storage site had two goals: either cancelling the election or destroying the stuffed ballots counted amongst the results,” he tweeted.
The fire took place at a Trade Ministry site in Baghdad where the election commission stored the ballot boxes from al-Rusafa, the half of Baghdad on the eastern side of the Tigris river. Baghdad is Iraq’s most populous province, accounting for 71 seats out of the Iraqi parliament’s 329.
The site was divided into four warehouses, said Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Saad Maan. Only one – housing electronic equipment and documents – had burned down, he said.
Firefighters stopped the fire from spreading to the remaining three warehouses, where the ballot boxes are stored, he said.
The law mandating a manual recount also mandated the board of the election commission be replaced by judges. Earlier on Sunday, the Supreme Judicial Council, Iraq’s highest judicial authority, named the judges who will take over replace the commissioners.
The council also named judges to replace the commission’s local chiefs in each of Iraq’s 18 provinces, another measure mandated by parliament.
The board of commissioners has said it would appeal against the law forcing the recount.
Its chairman a statement late on Sunday said all of the electronic vote counting and voter identification equipment had been lost in the fire but that ballot boxes were safe.
“The fire does not affect the election results,” Maan al-Hetawi said, because it had kept copies of the paper tallies produced by the vote counting devices in a separate location.
“The commission today is targeted from all sides … we call on all constitutional institutions in the country and the leaders of all political blocs to do their historic duty and preserve the results of the electoral process,” he said.
(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; additional reporting by Huda Majeed; editing by Larry King and Sandra Maler)