Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside an election office in this northern Iraqi city Wednesday to protest alleged fraud in last week’s parliamentary elections. The head of Iraq’s national election commission said at a news conference that armed men had taken over the election office and that the workers inside were “in effect, hostages,” but local officials and witnesses disputed that account, saying there was no sign of weapons at what appeared to be a peaceful demonstration. They said hundreds of ethnic Turkmen and Arab demonstrators massed outside the offices to protest alleged fraud after early returns showed a Kurdish party winning most of the vote. Oil-rich Kirkuk is at the heart of a long-running dispute between the Kurds, who claim it as part of their autonomous region, and the central government in Baghdad. The city’s Arab and Turkmen communities side with the central government.
“Everyone is asking for one thing only, we are asking for the ballot boxes to be open, even if it’s just one box,” said Sheikh Amer al-Jabouri, one of the demonstrators.
“People wanted a change and they voted in large numbers to make that change, but thousands of votes were not able to be cast, people were stopped from going to vote,” said Tahrir al-Obaidi, a lawyer who joined the demonstration. Kirkuk Governor Rakan al-Jabouri told The Associated Press no one was being held hostage.
Iraq rolled out a new electronic voting system for the first time for Saturday’s nationwide parliamentary elections, leading many voters to complain of irregularities. In Baghdad, voters said election officials failed to deliver new ID cards in time, preventing them from voting.