Iraq's biggest ballot warehouse hit by fire before vote recount
LONDON - A fire ripped through Iraq's biggest ballot warehouse ahead of a vote recount prompted by allegations of fraud during legislative elections.
A senior security official, speaking to Agence France-Presse (AFP) on condition of anonymity, said the fire broke out in a warehouse located in Al-Russafa, one of the largest voting districts in eastern Baghdad.
Firefighters brought the blaze under control several hours after it started, and the extent of the damage caused to ballot boxes was still unclear.
Around 60 percent of Baghdad’s two million eligible voters had cast their ballots in the May election in Al-Russafa district.
A column of black smoke billowed from the warehouse, normally used to store foodstuff, and could be seen across the capital.
Warehouse staff ran out of the building carrying blue and white plastic ballot boxes to safety as firefighters backed by around a dozen trucks struggled to put out the fire, an AFP reporter said.
The cause of the fire was not immediately known.
The blaze comes as Iraq prepares for a manual recount of around 10 million votes, following allegations of fraud during the May 12 legislative polls.
The vote was won by influential Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr’s electoral alliance but the result was contested following allegations of fraud namely by veteran politicians.
The recount was ordered by parliament at all polling stations, although no timetable has been announced.
According to intelligence services, tests of electronic voting machines — used for the first time in Iraqi elections — produced varied results, appearing to give credence to the fraud claims.
An electoral commission official and a spokesman for the interior ministry suggested the fire did not damage ballot boxes.
“The room where voting machines and other election equipment were stored was destroyed by the fire,” Imed Jamil, an electoral commission official for Al-Russafa, told AFP.
“The ballot boxes were stored in another room,” he said, adding that the fire would not affect the recount.
Interior ministry spokesman General Saad Maan echoed him during a visit to the scene to the warehouse where the blaze was raging.
“Election material, including maybe ballot boxes, were burned but most of the ballot boxes were stored in another building and have been preserved,” Maan told reporters.
Iraqis took to social media to discuss the fire, with some suggesting it was deliberately lit.
Experts have said the recount is unlikely that it would produce a major change in the number of seats won by their rival lists, but rather modify the rankings of candidates within the same lists.
Iraq’s outgoing parliament sacked last week the nine-member independent commission which oversaw the polls, and they were replaced by nine judges who would supervise the recount.
The previous week parliament had already voted to annul the ballots of displaced Iraqis and those living abroad, although they accounted for only a small fraction of the overall vote.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi described the fire as a “plot” aimed at Iraq’s democracy.
“Burning election warehouses … is a plot to harm the nation and its democracy. We will take all necessary measures and strike with an iron fist all who undermine the security of the nation and its citizens,” Abadi said in a statement.
Experts would conduct an investigation and prepare a detailed report on how the fire started, he said.
Abadi, whose electoral alliance came third in the election, had said that a government investigation had found serious violations and blamed Iraq’s independent elections commission for most of them.
Salim al-Jabouri, the outgoing speaker of parliament, said the fire showed the election should be repeated.
“The crime of burning ballot-box storage warehouses in the Rusafa area is a deliberate act, a planned crime, aimed at hiding instances of fraud and manipulation of votes, lying to the Iraqi people and changing their will and choices,” he said in a statement.
Jabouri narrowly lost his seat in May and had been one of the strongest proponents of a recount before the fire.
Jabouri’s call was seconded by Vice President Iyad Allawi, the leader of the electoral alliance Jabouri ran as part of.
Opponents of the recount, mostly those whose blocs did well in the election, point out that many who voted for it were lawmakers who lost their seat. Sadr’s bloc boycotted the parliamentary session in which the vote took place.
Top Sadr aide Dhiaa al-Asadi said the fire was a plot aimed at forcing a repeat of the election and hiding fraud.
“Whoever burned the election equipment and document storage site had two goals: either cancelling the election or destroying the stuffed ballots counted amongst the results,” he tweeted.
(The Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)