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Iraqi Judges Take Over Election Body After Fraud Allegations
By Sinan Salaheddin

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's top judicial authority on Thursday took over the Independent Elections Commission as stipulated by a law passed in response to complaints of widespread fraud in last month's national elections, according to a statement.

On Wednesday, lawmakers approved amendments to the election law that include annulling results from balloting abroad and camps for displaced people in four Sunni-dominated provinces, and call for a manual recount of all ballots.

Supreme Judicial Council spokesman Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar said the group of top jurists, who are appointed by parliament, will meet on Sunday to select judges who will run the commission and supervise the manual recount requested by the law. Bayrkdar said the council will act in a "fair and impartial way."

Hours later, the elections commission in a statement defended its procedures as "professional and transparent" and expressed readiness to fully cooperate with judicial authorities. But commission said it will challenge the amendments in court, arguing they are unconstitutional and against the law.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, mainly Sunnis, were driven from their homes during the war against the Islamic State group, with many unable to return because their homes and neighborhoods were destroyed. It's not known how many of them voted in the election, or what impact the cancellation of their ballots could have on the results.

The divide between the Sunnis and Iraq's Shiite majority, which rose to power following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, was a key factor behind the violence that followed the invasion and the eventual rise of the Islamic State group. But those tensions appear to have eased following the war with IS, and many Shiite politicians openly campaigned in Sunni areas.

Last month's elections -- the fourth held in the last 15 years -- saw low turnout, reflecting widespread anger at the country's dysfunctional political class.

Supporters of the populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose forces once battled U.S. troops, emerged with the most seats, followed by a coalition of mostly Shiite paramilitary forces and another led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The dispute over the election could prolong the process of forming a new government.

A government commission set up to investigate the election found "unprecedented" violations by the Independent Elections Committee, according to al-Abadi. The elections commission has not responded to the report, and officials could not be reached for comment on Thursday.


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