BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — Iraq’s interim leader called on his countrymen to set aside their differences yesterday, while polling stations finished the first-phase count of millions of ballots from the weekend election that many Iraqis hope will usher in democracy and hasten the departure of 150,000 American troops.    

Chelsea Trull
An Iraqi election officer checks ballot boxes at a counting center in Amman, Jordan yesterday. The ballot-counting process for Iraqi expatriates began Monday with the presence of international and political observers. (AP Photo)

    From the counts by individual stations, local centers will prepare tally sheets and send them to Baghdad, where vote totals will be compiled, election commission official Adel al-Lami said. Final results could take up to 10 days.

    With turnout in the election still unknown, concern was focused on participation by Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority, amid fears that the group that drives the insurgency could grow ever more alienated. Electoral commission officials said turnout in hard-line Sunni areas was better than some expected, though they cited no numbers. A U.S. diplomat warned that Sunni participation appeared “considerably lower” than that of other groups.

    Guerrillas claimed to have shot down a British military C-130 Hercules transport plane that crashed north of Baghdad just after polls closed Sunday. Al-Jazeera aired an insurgent video showing a missile being fired and flaming wreckage purported to be that of the plane. No missile impact was shown, and the footage’s authenticity could not be confirmed.

    All 10 military personnel on the flight were missing and presumed dead — which would be Britain’s heaviest single loss of life of the war — British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said.

    The video came from the “Green Brigade,” a previously unknown arm of the National Islamic Resistance in Iraq. Another group, Ansar al-Islam, issued a competing claim of responsibility. The British government would not comment on the insurgents’ claims, saying the cause of the crash was still being investigated.

    In his first news conference since the elections, Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi called on Iraqis to join together to build a society shattered by decades of war, tyranny, economic sanctions and military occupation.

    “The terrorists now know that they cannot win,” he said. “We are entering a new era of our history and all Iraqis — whether they voted or not — should stand side by side to build their future.” He promised to work to ensure that “the voice of all Iraqis is present in the coming government.”

    Three U.S. Marines were killed in fighting south of Baghdad on Monday, after two Marines were killed on election day. At least 44 people were killed in violence Sunday, when there were nine suicide attacks, most near polling sites in Baghdad.

    The country was already focusing on goals almost as challenging as the election itself: forming a new governing coalition once the vote is known, then writing a constitution and winning trust.

    The main Shiite clerical-backed faction in the race was already claiming a strong showing in the election. Officials of the United Iraqi Alliance said they expected to win at least 45 percent of seats in the 275-member National Assembly. Local officials of the parties within the alliance said the list swept some southern cities, winning 90 percent of the votes in Najaf and 80 percent in Basra.

    The claims could not be confirmed, and the Alliance had been expected to run strong in the Shiite heartland. Going into the vote, the list headed by Allawi was also considered a main contender.

    A powerful showing for the Alliance, which was endorsed by the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, could make Sunnis even more reluctant to accept the results of the election — particularly if Sunni participation turns out to have been low.

    Although turnout figures were unavailable, a U.S. diplomat briefing reporters on condition of anonymity said “good anecdotal information” indicated that “Sunni participation was considerably lower than participation by the other groups, especially in areas which have seen a great deal of violence.”

    In the heavily Sunni town of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, 48-year-old history teacher Qais Youssif said no member of his family had voted.“

    The so-called elections were held in the way that America and the occupation forces wanted,” Youssif said. “They want to marginalize the role of the Sunnis. They and the media talk about the Sunnis as a minority. I do not think they are a minority.”

    The Iraqi Islamic Party, a leading Sunni faction, feels the vote was not inclusive “because an important segment of the Sunni Muslim community didn’t take part,” said party official Naser Ayef al-Ani. Large, heavily Sunni sections of the country were unable to cast ballots, and in some places lack of security forced polling places to open late or not at all, officials said.

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