Iraq: Armed Men Trap Election Workers in Kirkuk, Block Count

Baghdad, May 16 (AP) Iraqi officials said today that armed men have trapped election workers inside their offices in Kirkuk, disrupting the vote count in the northern city at the heart of a long-running dispute with Iraqi Kurds.

Elections commissioner Riad al-Badran said the affiliation of the armed men was not known, but accused them of pressuring the election workers, who he said were "in effect, hostages." He did not say how many armed men were involved.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a political party known as the PUK, won the largest share of the Kirkuk vote, with 90 percent of the ballots counted. But al-Badran said election workers were unable to send results from 186 ballot boxes.

Several parties complained of fraud after Iraq held nationwide parliamentary elections on Saturday, but protests have been limited largely to Kirkuk.

The city, a major oil hub, held elections amid elevated tensions, after federal forces pushed Kurdish militias out last year, ending a decade of Kurdish administration.

Al-Abadi at a press conference on Tuesday urged the election commission to address any allegations of fraud as quickly as possible. He said the commission could resort to a national recount by hand if wide discrepancies were found between paper ballots and machine counts.

A coalition organized by the populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has captured the largest share of the national vote with more than 90 percent of the ballots counted. The commission is yet to release the results from the expatriate and armed forces vote. Al-Abadi asked the country to respect the results.

The elections, the first since al-Abadi declared victory over the Islamic State group last December, passed without any reports of major violence.

Turnout was 44 per cent, the lowest since the 2003 U.S. invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein. Iraqis are skeptical of a political class that has been unable to combat corruption and create jobs. (AP)

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