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Shi'ites confident of win in Iraq election

Results expected in several days

BAGHDAD -- Leaders of Iraq's religious Shi'ite Muslim coalition expressed confidence yesterday that they would be victorious when vote-counting in Thursday's national parliamentary election is completed. The count continued yesterday in Baghdad's Green Zone, amid continuing complaints from competing slates of electoral violations throughout the country's Shi'ite-dominated south.

Election officials said it would take several more days to release preliminary results. But the uncertainty did not stop leaders of the United Iraqi Alliance from predicting a dominating electoral performance similar to the one in January's vote for an interim national Parliament.

''I bless this victory for the alliance list," said outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari during a visit to the holy city of Najaf.

Assuming the part of a magnanimous winner, Jaafari hailed the participation of minority Sunni Arab voters who largely shunned the January vote. Jaafari called for all of Iraq's religious and ethnic groups to ''stand below the roof of the new Parliament to build a new Iraq."

The extended guessing game over how each electoral slate performed probably will continue dominating public debate as Iraqis await final results, which the Electoral Commission estimates could take as long as two weeks.

Commission officials have tried to preach patience.

''Some political entities will say, 'We have this many votes,' but this is not correct. They cannot guess," said commission member Farid Ayar.

''It's important to stay off the air saying, 'We won this or we won that,' " said a Western diplomat in Baghdad, the capital. ''That's not acceptable diplomatic practice. That's pressure."

In the meantime, speculation has begun over the makeup of the government that will rule Iraq for the next four years. After the January vote, the alliance partnered with an ethnic Kurdish coalition to form the interim government. Former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, whose slate won 40 seats in the 275-member interim National Assembly, was frozen out.

This time, a newly engaged Sunni population could have an impact on the political dynamics. Leaders of the top Sunni slate, headed by the Iraqi Islamic Party, predict anywhere from 40 to 50 seats. Iyad Samaraie, a senior party official, said he was open to the possibility of joining the religious Shi'ite Alliance in a coalition government.

The post-election period also could bring a raft of internal power struggles among Shi'ites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. Jaafari was regarded by many within his own coalition as a caretaker prime minister for an interim government. Among his likely challengers this time are current Vice President Adel Abdel Mahdi, a fellow religious Shi'ite.

Observers in Kurdistan also predict a move within Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, where a reformist wing seeks to ease Talabani, a veteran guerrilla leader, into a more symbolic role.

When negotiations over a governing coalition begin in earnest, Allawi, who was appointed to his interim leadership spot while the US-led occupation authority was still in charge of Iraq, again might find himself on the outside.

A secular Shi'ite, he maintains a viscerally hostile relationship with the alliance, with which he waged an often bitter electoral struggle throughout the southern Shi'ite heartland.

His campaign has protested what it calls a systematic pattern of electoral violations by the alliance, including multiple voting, fake names on voter rolls, and intimidation of opposing slates' campaign workers.

Allawi left Iraq yesterday amid speculation that he was disillusioned by his slate's performance.

In a news conference, several top deputies detailed reports of attacks on Allawi campaign workers and voters using chemicals to remove the purple ink from their fingertips in order to vote more than once.

''The violations started right from the beginning of the electoral campaign," said Hamid Majeed Moussa, head of the Iraqi Communist party and a partner in the Allawi coalition.

The Communist Party's headquarters in the southern city of Nasiriyah were attacked on election day by a mob of alliance supporters.

Allawi backers also protested the Alliance's use of religious imagery to imply that the slate had the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the influential leader of millions of Iraqi Shi'ites.

''They put his picture on all their posters," said Safiya Souheil, one of the top female candidates on the Allawi slate.

Electoral Commission officials extended by one day the initial Saturday deadline for official complaints of electoral violations.

Commission head Hussein Hindawy said that all formal complaints would be investigated but would not explain how or what steps would be taken if violations were found to have significantly effected the voting.

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