A fire has torn through Iraq’s largest ballot warehouse, ahead of a controversial recount prompted by allegations of fraud.
A column of dark smoke was seen rising above the Al-Russafa district of Baghdad, where around 60% of the capital’s two million eligible voters are believed to have cast their ballots in May.
Firefighters were struggling to stop the flames even two hours into the blaze, as staff ran back and forth from the warehouse carrying blue and white ballot boxes.
Iraq’s election, held on 12 May, was won by a coalition led by populist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, in a surprise result that pushed out political establishment figures.
But the results have been marred by allegations of fraud, levelled by veteran politicians fronted by Salim al-Juburi, the parliamentary speaker.
No timetable has been announced for the recount, which will take place at all polling stations.
Intelligence services say that tests of electronic voting machines produced varied results, implying the tools may be unreliable.
Officials said that Sunday’s fire did not damage ballot boxes, which were in an adjacent room, but that voting machines and other electronic equipment were destroyed.
“Election material, including maybe ballot boxes, were burned but most of the ballot boxes were stored in another building and have been preserved,” interior ministry spokesperson General Saad Maan said.
Less than half of Iraq’s population took part in last month’s election in what was widely interpreted as a show of disillusionment with established elites – a trend further demonstrated in the swing to Mr al-Sadr’s coalition.
It is this old guard clamouring for a recount: the outgoing parliament also voted to annul ballots of displaced Iraqis and sacked the nine-member independent commission that oversaw the vote.
Mr al-Sadr, who emerged as a kingmaker in the elections, has a chequered and sometimes violent past which has included targeting both foreign troops and Sunni Iraqis with violence.
But he has more recently positioned himself as an Iraqi nationalist, critical of both Iranian and American influence and sectarian conflicts in Iraq, and forming diverse alliances with communists, Sunnis and independents.