After ballot box fire, cleric Sadr says Iraqis should unite

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for Iraqis to show unity rather than squabble over a possible rerun of the election his bloc won last month, in remarks that seemed aimed at defusing political tension after a storage site holding ballot boxes caught fire.

Parliament has mandated a manual recount of the election in which a number of political parties alleged fraud. A storage site holding half of the ballot boxes from the capital caught fire on Sunday in what Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called a “plot to harm the nation and its democracy”.

The authorities say the ballot boxes were saved and the fire will not affect the recount. Nevertheless it has added to fears that disputes over the vote result could turn violent.

Sadr, a Shi’ite cleric who once led violent campaigns against a U.S. occupation, has emerged as nationalist opponent of powerful Shi’ite religious parties allied to Iran. He scored a surprise victory in the election, with his followers emerging as the largest political bloc in a highly fractured parliament.

“Stop fighting for seats, posts, gains, influence, power, and rulership,” he wrote in an article published by his office.

“Is it not time to stand as one for building and reconstruction instead of burning ballot boxes or repeating elections just for one seat or two?” Sadr wrote.

The election, the first since the defeat of the Islamic State group that seized a third of Iraq in 2014, raised hopes that Iraqis could put aside long-standing communal and sectarian divisions to rebuild. Sadr’s followers campaigned in an unlikely alliance with the Communists and other secular groups.

Sadr has in the past mobilised tens of thousands of followers to protest in the streets against government policies he opposed. He said there were attempts by some to cause a civil war but promised he would not participate in one.

“I will not sell the nation for seats and will not sell the people for power. Iraq is my concern, positions for me do not mean much,” wrote Sadr.

One of Sadr’s top aides had said on Sunday that the ballot box fire was intended either to force a rerun of the election or to conceal fraud.

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from a storage site in Baghdad, housing ballot boxes from Iraq’s May parliamentary election, Iraq June 10, 2018. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily /File Photo

COMPANY DEFENDS VOTING EQUIPMENT

Outgoing parliament speaker Salim al-Jabouri, who lost his seat, called for the election to be repeated after the fire, which he said proved fraud had taken place.

In the election, Iraq used an electronic vote-counting system for the first time. Some Iraqi politicians had argued that the manual recount was necessary to make sure that the electronic system did not hide fraud.

Miru Systems, the Korean company that provided the electronic equipment under a $135 million contract, said there was nothing wrong with its system.

“We have checked our election device provided to Iraq after the fraud allegation erupted, and found out that there have been no malfunction in the device nor its system,” said a spokesman.

Sadr led uprisings against U.S. occupation troops, prompting the Pentagon to call his Mehdi Army the biggest threat to Iraq’s security at the time.

FILE PHOTO: Firefighters inspect after a fire at a storage site in Baghdad, housing the boxes from Iraq’s May parliamentary election, Iraq June 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani /File Photo

His father and another relative were both grand ayatollahs, spiritual leaders of Iraq’s majority Shi’ite community, slain under Sunni Muslim dictator Saddam Hussein. Their posters can be seen in Baghdad and the southern Shi’ite heartland.

Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Peter Graff

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