Americans accused of interfering in Iraq election

Seymour Hersh, the American investigative journalist, said the White House secretly tried to influence the elections by undertaking operations "off the books". This was after the President had been frustrated in his support for a CIA operation to fund political candidates anywhere in the world who were seeking to spread democracy.

In practice, this would have allowed the CIA to give financial aid to the candidacy of Iyad Allawi, the interim Iraqi prime minister, appointed by the US in June 2004. The plan was dropped because of the opposition of Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader.

The US was compelled to agree to an open election in Iraq after it became apparent in the autumn of 2003 that direct rule by Paul Bremer, the US viceroy in Iraq, had provoked a vicious and rising guerrilla war. In conflict with the Sunni Arabs, Washington could not afford also to alienate the Shias or their religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The Shia leaders wanted an election because their community, long politically marginalised in Iraq, makes up 60 per cent of the population.

But since the Gulf War in 1991 the US had been worried about allowing Shia parties or parties friendly with Iran to take power. This was a prime reason why the US did not overthrow Saddam Hussein after defeating his army in Kuwait.

Washington was happy with its choice of Iyad Allawi, a secular Shia businessman whose Iraqi National Accord group had long been supported by the CIA, as interim prime minister. It wanted him to do well enough in the election to stay as prime minister. The Kurds, suspicious of the Shia parties, would also have preferred Mr Allawi to stay in power.

Hersh quotes a UN official as saying: "The American embassy's aim was to make sure that Allawi remained as prime minister, and they tried to do it through manipulation of the system ... [But] the Shias rigged the election in the south as much as ballots were rigged for Allawi."

Mr Allawi clearly had money to spend during the election and it was assumed, though without any proof in Iraq, that this ultimately came from the US.

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