Fire engulfs warehouse storing Iraq election ballots in latest setback for troubled vote
A fire truck arrives at the scene of a blaze Sunday at a warehouse in Baghdad storing ballots from Iraq’s parliamentary elections. (Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images)
By Tamer El-Ghobashy and Tamer El-Ghobashy Baghdad bureau chief focusing on Iraq's politics, security and the fight against the Islamic State Email Bio Follow Mustafa Salim June 10

BAGHDAD — A fire engulfed a depot on Sunday where ballots from Iraq’s national election were being stored ahead of a full manual recount, the latest setback for a process that had already been mired in accusations of fraud and other violations.

The blaze created black plumes that could be seen for miles around the capital. There were fears that the destruction of ballots further risks the legitimacy of last month’s election, which saw a major shift in Iraq’s political order.

Saad Maan, a spokesman for Iraq’s Interior Ministry, said the fire had broken out in a warehouse where electronic voting machines and some ballot boxes were stored. He said that it was one of four storage facilities for ballots on the site, belonging to Iraq’s Trade Ministry, and that the three depots with the majority of returns had been spared.

The cause of the fire is unknown, he said, and will be investigated once the blaze is contained by the nine teams of firefighters at the scene in the Rasafa district of Baghdad.

The warehouses contained ballots from the largest voting district in the capital.

It was not immediately clear how the damage would affect the results of the election, which have been called into question amid persistent claims of significant irregularities and mismanagement.

A fire truck arrives at the scene of a blaze Sunday at a warehouse in Baghdad storing ballots from Iraq’s parliamentary elections. (Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images)

Salim al-Jubouri, the outgoing speaker of parliament who lost his seat in the election, called for an entire redo of the vote because of the fire.

The fire broke out on the same day that a panel of judges had been formed to officially take over the election recount from the ostensibly autonomous Independent High Electoral Commission, the body that administered the vote and had since come under intense criticism for its performance.

Last week, Iraq’s parliament voted to dismiss the commissioners and replace them with judges while calling for a full hand recount of about 11 million votes. Some parties condemned the measure, saying it was spearheaded by groups of lawmakers who had lost their seats.

A ticket backed by the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a longtime opponent of American influence in Iraq, won the most seats in the initial count, with 54 out of 329 — placing him in prime position to select the nation’s next leader. A coalition of figures from influential Shiite militias placed second with 47 seats.

Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, whose ticket had placed third in the May 12 election, approved the move for the recount, saying the electoral commission was to blame for what he described as widespread irregularities.

Before the parliament had acted, the electoral commission said it was voiding 1,021 ballot boxes from throughout the country, along with votes cast by Iraqis abroad and Iraqis still living in displacement camps that were set up during the battles against the Islamic State.

The commission did not say why it was nullifying those votes or detail any of the discrepancies it had apparently discovered, ­fueling suspicion by voters and political parties over its administration of the tightly contested election.

In the days after the election, reports of fraud began to emerge, primarily from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, while voters nationwide complained about difficulties using the electronic voting machines that were being used for the first time.

The United Nations had expressed concern over the allegations and urged the electoral commission to conduct a speedy and transparent investigation.

Coupled with the historically low turnout of about 45 percent, the allegations of violations cast an unflattering spotlight on the election — Iraq’s first since the Islamic State took over and subsequently lost nearly one-third of the country’s territory.

Ahead of Sunday’s fire, the recount was not expected to significantly alter the final results of the elections but did promise to further delay the lengthy coalition-building process that is required to form a new government.

Abadi and the current parliament’s term is set to expire June 30, but it is increasingly unlikely that a new government will be in place by the deadline. The top finishers had already been in talks about forming governing coalitions that could result in Abadi being elected to a second term as a consensus candidate.