An international team agreed to review Iraq's parliamentary elections, a decision lauded by Sunni Arab and secular Shiite groups who have staged repeated protests around Iraq complaining of widespread fraud and intimidation. Meanwhile, gunmen killed 12 members of an extended Shiite family near Latifiyah, a Sunni Arab-dominated town about 20 miles (30 kilometers) south of Baghdad. Police said the men were taken from their homes, packed into a minivan and shot.
The decision announced Thursday by the International Mission for Iraqi Elections to send a team of assessors should help placate opposition complaints of ballot box rigging and mollify those groups who felt their views were not being heard, especially among hardline Sunni Arab parties.
"It is important that the Iraqi people have confidence in the election results and that the voting process, including the process for vote counting, is free and fair,' U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said. He added that "these experts will be arriving immediately and we are ready to assist them, if needed."
The team was coming despite a U.N. observer's endorsement of the Dec. 15 vote, which gave the Shiite religious bloc a big lead in preliminary returns. The observer, Craig Jenness, said Wednesday that his team, which helped the Iraqi election commission organize and oversee the poll, found the elections to be credible and transparent.
Sunni Arabs and secular Shiites rejected Jenness' findings, saying their concerns, which included political assassinations before the elections, were not addressed. There have been about 1,500 complaints lodged against the elections, including about 50 serious enough to alter the results in some districts. The overall result, however, was not expected to change.
On Thursday, the United Nations said it had encouraged Iraq's electoral commission to get more outside observers involved in the process, and Secretary-General Kofi Annan welcomed the participation of the International Mission for Iraqi Elections, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
"It is critical that those Iraqi groups who have complained about the conduct of the election are given a hearing," Dujarric said in a statement. "This team of assessors, which was not involved in the conduct of the elections, offers an independent evaluation of these complaints."
The Iraqi Accordance Front, which is the country's leading Sunni Arab group, applauded the decision, as did the secular Iraqi National List headed by former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite.
"We are optimistic with this international response and hope that it will find a solution for this crisis," Accordance spokesman Thafir al-Ani told The Associated Press. It was unclear if the review would further delay the release of final results, now expected in early January.
A serious crisis involving the elections could set back hopes for a broad-based government that would include minority Sunni Arabs as well as secular Shiites. Such a government could have the legitimacy necessary to diminish the insurgency, a key part of any U.S. military exit strategy from Iraq.
The presence of two Arab experts on the International Mission for Iraqi Elections team could go far in helping to convince Iraqis that the review of the vote will be fair. The team will also consist of a Canadian and a European.
The independent group said it helped monitor the elections in Baghdad and was "assisted by monitors from countries of the European Union working under IMIE's umbrella." The team will travel to Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi election commission, a point noted by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"The Electoral Commission has once again demonstrated its commitment to fair and credible elections that meet international standards," Rice said in a statement welcoming the invitation to the independent team. An official for the commission, Safwat Rashid, said a review could "evaluate what happened during the elections and what's going on now. We are highly confident that we did our job properly and we have nothing to hide."
Preliminary results from the vote have given the governing Shiite religious bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, a big lead, but one which still would require forming a coalition with other groups. In northern Iraq, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, was holding talks with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the cleric who heads the United Iraqi Alliance, and other members of that religious group about forming a coalition government, reports the AP. I.L.