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The threat of violent protests loomed over Iraq yesterday as the country’s leading opposition politician said that there was widespread fraud in last week’s elections.

Ayad Allawi told Western officials that aides to Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister, had hidden ballot papers and falsified computer records in an effort to retain power. “They are stealing the votes of the Iraqi people,” his spokesman told a press conference called to set out the main claims.

The claims could trigger a fresh round of violence and undermine the credibility of the next government at a time when US troops are preparing to leave Iraq. Full election results have yet to be announced but Mr Allawi — a former Prime Minister — and Mr al-Maliki are vying for the top job. Partial results show both men doing well in their respective strongholds.

The Iraqi National Movement, the alliance led by Mr Allawi, has filed 30 complaints alleging voter fraud. Mr al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition has threatened to sue him for defamation.

Several violations alleged by Mr Allawi have been confirmed by diplomats and election observers. Haider al-Abadi, a senior adviser to Mr al-Maliki, spent about an hour inside the election data entry centre on Wednesday, a violation of election rules. Supporters of Mr Allawi claim that the adviser falsified nationwide records, but they have not presented any evidence.

On the same day, six clerks at the main election centre were dismissed for offences committed while inputting voter tallies.

Mr Allawi also claimed that 250,000 soldiers were denied the chance to vote, and that an election monitor had found ballot papers with votes for Mr Allawi dumped in the garden of a polling station in the northern city of Kirkuk.

Munir al-Gafili, the head of Kirkuk city council and an Allawi supporter, showed nine discarded ballots at a press conference in Baghdad. “Every one of them is marked for Allawi,” he said. “That is no coincidence.”

Western officials said that incidents of fraud had undoubtedly taken place, “some by Allawi and some against Allawi”. The UN has sent investigation teams to the provinces of Kirkuk and Ninevah in northern Iraq. Officials say that so far, however, they do not see a pattern of systematic fraud.

Adnan Janabi, a former government minister and Allawi supporter, alleged that the Government was using the armed forces to intimidate opponents. He claimed that units from the Iraqi Army raided homes of Allawi supporters this week. “They are trying to provoke people,” he said.

He also claimed that voting by millions of Iraqi exiles — among whom Mr Allawi is popular — in Jordan, Syria and elsewhere, had been beset by problems. “What we see is the tip of an iceberg,” he said.

The Iraq election commission yesterday published the first set of results from Sunday’s poll. With about 30 per cent of votes counted, Mr al-Maliki won the southern provinces of Najaf and Babylon. They are the Shia heartlands, where he was expected to do well. In the northern provinces of Diyala and Salaheddin, where mostly Sunnis live, Mr Allawi is said to have won the highest number of votes.

The biggest battleground is Baghdad, because of its size and sectarian mix. The city has borne the brunt of terror attacks and battles among militias in the past seven years. Many residents have turned their backs on traditional religious parties, which they see as complicit in the violence.

The commander of US forces in Iraq predicted that it would take “a couple of months” for leaders to form a new government, but played down fears of instability. General Ray Odierno said he had been in close touch with Iraqi authorities about ensuring security. timesonline

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