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Chaotic vote full of potential for fraud

Voters aligned with a militant Shiite cleric cast ballots on Friday in an unofficial referendum that was chaotic and full of the potential for fraud, but that may prove critical in determining the next prime minister of Iraq.

Representatives of Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army was among the largest and most feared Shiite militias during the country's sectarian warfare, have said that the candidate who wins a majority of votes in the referendum will get the backing of the 40 or so members of the Sadrist movement who won parliamentary seats in the March 7 election.

The referendum, which has no legal authority, is open to all Iraqis, not just followers of al-Sadr's movement, Sadrist officials said.

The five candidates listed on the ballot include Ayad Allawi, Iraq's former interim prime minister, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who have each made appeals to the Sadrists since election results released last Friday showed Allawi's Iraqiya party with a two-seat advantage over al-Maliki's State of Law alliance in the new parliament.

Because neither slate won the 163 seats needed to form a government, the Sadrists have positioned themselves as a critical ally to both sides. But they are not exactly kingmakers, in that their 40 seats cannot clinch a winning coalition for either Allawi, who won 91 seats, or al-Maliki, who won 89.


In addition to Allawi and al-Maliki, the candidates on the Sadrist ballot are Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi; Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a former prime minister; and Muhammad Jaffar al-Sadr, who ran with al-Maliki's alliance. He is a cousin of Muqtada al-Sadr and the son of Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr, a revered ayatollah killed during the government of Saddam Hussein.

Far from the relatively well-organized March 7 parliamentary vote, the balloting that took place Friday in a giant tent in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad was at times tumultuous.

Zaman Jabar, 30, who helped organize the process, said traditional election standards like registering voters and requiring identification were not necessary.

''We know all the voters in our sector here," he said. "All of them are our people."

Hussein Saaed, 33, another voting organizer, said male heads of households would be given ballots to take home for family members to fill out and return later.

Voting was scheduled to continue Saturday, though it was not clear when a winner might be announced.

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