Iraq Finishes First-Phase Ballot Count

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Iraq's interim leader called on his countrymen to set aside their differences Monday, while local precincts finished a first-phase count of millions of ballots from the weekend election that many Iraqis hope will usher in democracy and hasten the departure of 150,000 American troops.

With the count completed at individual polling stations, local centers will prepare tally sheets and send them to Baghdad, where vote totals will be compiled, election Commission official Adel al-Lami said. Final results could take up to 10 days.

While they didn't provide any numbers, electoral commission officials said turnout in hardline Sunni areas was better than some had expected. However, a U.S. diplomat said participation by Sunni Arab voters appeared to have been low — raising fears that the group that drives the insurgency could grow ever more alienated.

Meanwhile, the militant group Ansar al-Islam claimed on Monday that its fighters, using an anti-tank missile, shot down a British military C-130 Hercules transport plane that crashed north of Baghdad just after polls closed Sunday.

All 10 military personnel on the flight were missing and presumed dead — which would be Britain's heaviest single loss of life of the war — Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said. The British government would not comment on the Ansar claim, saying the cause of the crash was still being investigated.

In his first news conference since the elections, Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi called on Iraqis to join together to build a society shattered by decades of war, tyranny, economic sanctions and military occupation.

"The terrorists now know that they cannot win," he said. "We are entering a new era of our history and all Iraqis — whether they voted or not — should stand side by side to build their future." He promised to work to ensure that "the voice of all Iraqis is present in the coming government."

With the results from Iraq's first free vote in 50 years still unknown, the country was already focusing on goals almost as challenging as the election itself: forming a new governing coalition once the vote is known, then writing a constitution and winning trust.

Participation by Sunnis in the vote remained a crucial question. There are fears that many in the influential minority — which resents the loss of its past power and the U.S. presence in Iraq — will not accept the results of the election, which is likely to bring the Shiite majority to power.

In the heavily Sunni town of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, 48-year-old history teacher Qais Youssif said no member of his family had voted.

"The so-called elections were held in the way that America and the occupation forces wanted," Youssif said. "They want to marginalize the role of the Sunnis. They and the media talk about the Sunnis as a minority. I do not think they are a minority."

Although turnout figures were unavailable, a U.S. diplomat briefing reporters on condition of anonymity said "good anecdotal information" indicated that "Sunni participation was considerably lower than participation by the other groups, especially in areas which have seen a great deal of violence."

On Sunday, the electoral commission said it believed that turnout overall among the estimated 14 million eligible Iraqi voters appeared higher than the 57 percent, or roughly 8 million, that had been predicted before the vote.

However, the commission backtracked later on turnout estimates and said none would be available until the count was complete.

Not even the country's frequent power outages could stop the count. In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, election workers began their task crouched on the ground, counting ballots by the glow of oil lamps.

After an election ban on most daytime driving, cars again wove their way down Baghdad's streets Monday. The city was relatively calm at midmorning after a day of thundering mortar shelling and gunfire.

"Now I feel that Saddam is really gone," said Fatima Ibrahim, smiling as she headed home after voting in Irbil, in the Kurdish northern region. She was 14 and a bride of just three months when her husband, father and brother were rounded up in a campaign of ethnic cleansing under Saddam. None have ever been found.

The absence of any catastrophic single attack Sunday seemed at least partly a result of the heavy security measures, including a ban on most private cars. At least 44 people were killed in election day violence, eight of them suicide bombers who moved on foot, blowing up near polling sites in Baghdad.

Two U.S. service members also died in fighting in the Sunni stronghold of Anbar province west of Baghdad Sunday.

It was still unclear if the successful vote would deal a significant blow to the insurgents or lead to a short-term rise in violence. The militants might need time to regroup after the spate of attacks they launched in the weeks before the vote.

The election was hailed as a success around the globe, with President Bush declaring: "The world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East."

The top opponents to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq had praise for the vote, though with reservation. French President Jacques Chirac phoned Bush and said he was satisfied by Iraqi participation in the vote. "These elections mark an important step in the political reconstruction of Iraq. The strategy of terrorist groups has partly failed," Chirac said, according to a spokesman.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called the election an "historic event for the Iraqi people because it is undoubtedly a step toward democratization of the country."

But his Foreign Ministry expressed regret over the low Sunni turnout, echoing worries expressed by several world leaders. It warned of difficulties "if other political forces feel removed from state affairs."

Sunday's historic election came seven months after Iraq's interim government took over from a U.S.-led coalition and less than two years after Saddam's ouster.

The 275-member National Assembly, elected for an 11-month term, will draft a permanent constitution, and if the document is approved, Iraqis will vote for a permanent government in December. If the document is rejected, Iraqis will repeat the whole process again.

The ticket endorsed by the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was the pre-voting favorite, while Allawi's slate was also considered strong. Once results are in, it could take weeks of backroom deals before a prime minister and government are picked by the new assembly.

If that government can draw in the minority Sunni Arabs who partly shunned the election, the country could stabilize, hastening the day when 150,000 U.S. troops can go home.

With the polls barely closed, international debate immediately turned to just that issue. On Monday, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid plans to call on Bush to outline an exit strategy for Iraq.

Iraq's interior minister, Falah al-Naqib, told Britain's Channel 4 News he expected there would be no need for U.S. troops any longer than 18 months because that's when he anticipates Iraq's security forces will be trained well enough to handle the job.

But Allawi said recently that it was premature to know when Iraqi troops would be ready.