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Iraqis Protest 'deliberate' Lack of Ballot Papers

HAWIJAH, Iraq (AFP) -- Hundreds of people staged a demonstration in a northern Iraqi city on Thursday to protest the lack of ballot papers during last weekend's landmark election.

Demonstrators in Hawijah, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of the oil city of Kirkuk, accused the Iraqi election commission of deliberately withholding voting papers to penalise the Arab community.

The Kirkuk region is riven with ethnic divisions between the majority Kurds, and Arabs and Turkmen.

"The Hawijah region had 38 polling stations and 92,000 voters but only received 14,000 ballots," said Colonel Ahmad Abdallall al-Obeidi of the regional police.

He said the US military intervened to make sure an extra 6,000 papers were brought in.

Demonstrators called for an investigation and shouted: "For Kirkuk, we will sacrifice our soul and our blood."

"Sunni Arabs have been the victim of a lack of a strong leadership and of terrorist groups, and this pushed them to ignore the elections and the loss of their historic rights," said Mohammad Khalil, a candidate on an Arab list for the provincial election.

"If the Arabs are marginalised then there will be bloody conflicts, not just in Kirkuk but in all towns of Iraq," he added.

Sunni and Shiite Muslim parties withdrew from the provincial elections, held at the same time as the national vote last Sunday, in protest at a decision to allow tens of thousands of displaced Kurds to come back and vote.

The Arabs say the extra Kurds tipped the balance unfairly against them.

The Turkmen Front of Iraq party said in a statement it had written to the election commission to protest against "violations" it said were carried out by Kurdish parties.

"Turkmen and Arab observers were kept out of the vote count and the Kurds from Suleimaniyah and Arbil were allowed to vote in Kirkuk," said the statement. Suleimaniyah and Arbil are in the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq.

Many Kurd leaders would like to bring Kirkuk, which sits on huge oil wealth, into their sphere of authority.

Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who was ousted by a US-led invasion in 2003, persecuted the Kurds and sought to install an Arab-dominated community.


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