BAGHDAD, Iraq -
Iraq's leading Shiite religious bloc said Friday it is ready to discuss Sunni Arab participation in a coalition government, while thousands of Sunnis and some secular Shiites demonstrated in the streets claiming election fraud.
Reacting to growing protests over the Dec. 15 ballot for a new parliament, Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari urged Iraqis to have faith in the electoral process. He made the call after meeting with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who announced the first of a possible series of U.S. combat troop reductions next year.
About 20,000 people took part in a mass demonstration organized by 35 Sunni Arab and secular Shiite political parties after Friday prayers.
Many people outside the governing Shiite religious-oriented political bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, allege last week's elections were unfair to Sunni Arab and secular Shiite groups.
"We refuse the cheating and forgery in the elections," read one banner at the protest in southern Baghdad.
More than 2,000 people also demonstrated in Mosul, where some accused
Iran of having a hand in election fraud. About 1,000 people demonstrated in Tikrit, Saddam's hometown.
Sunni Arab and secular Shiite factions are demanding that an international body review the fraud complaints, warning that they may boycott the new legislature. The
United Nations rejected an outside review.
The demand was issued after preliminary returns indicated the United Iraqi Alliance was getting bigger-than-expected majorities in Baghdad, which has large numbers of secular Shiites and Sunnis.
About 1,500 complaints have been lodged about the elections, including 40 or so that the Iraqi election commission said are serious enough to change the results in certain areas.
The protesting groups have demanded the disbandment of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, accusing it of covering up ballot box stuffing and fraud
The prime minister defended the commission Friday, saying the government does not meddle in its affairs.
"Our victory as a government, our real victory, is that the election process included all political groups," al-Jaafari said. "Those who have complaints should contribute to this feeling and to be confident that their complaints will be listened to."
Just as he did one year ago, President Bush is certain to tout this election - with the manditory raising of a purple (middle) finger - and the subsequent draw down of 20,000 U.S. Troops (returning to our Baseline of 137,000) as major successes -- but how successful is an electoral process that many feel may have been rigged and/or gamed?