Ballot box storage site catches fire in Baghdad after recount ordered

A storage site housing half of Baghdad's ballot boxes from Iraq's parliamentary election in May has caught fire, just days after parliament called for a nationwide recount of votes, citing allegations of widespread violations.

Blaze comes as results of May 12 parliamentary election are being contested

Smoke rises on Sunday from a storage site in Baghdad that houses ballot boxes from Iraq's recent parliamentary election. (Khalid al-Mousily/Reuters)

A storage site housing half of Baghdad's ballot boxes from Iraq's parliamentary election in May has caught fire, just days after parliament called for a nationwide recount of votes, citing allegations of widespread violations.

Authorities did not say whether they believe the fire was an accident or had been set, but its timing heightened tensions over the election.

It was not immediately clear how the fire would affect the recount. An Interior Ministry spokesperson said later the fire was confined to one of four warehouses at the site, and state television said the ballot boxes were being moved to another location under heavy security.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose electoral alliance came third in the election, said on Tuesday that a government investigation had found serious violations and blamed Iraq's independent elections commission for most of them.

Parliament mandated a full manual recount the next day. The Independent High Elections Commission had used electronic vote-counting devices to tally the results.

A recount could undermine nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a long-time adversary of the United States who also opposes Iran's sway in Iraq. Sadr's bloc won the largest number of seats in the election.

One of Sadr's top aides expressed concern that some parties were trying to sabotage the cleric's victory.

Extent of damage unclear

The fire took place at a Trade Ministry site in Baghdad where the election commission stored the ballot boxes from al-Rusafa, the half of Baghdad on the eastern side of the Tigris river. Baghdad is Iraq's most populous province, accounting for 71 seats out of the Iraqi parliament's 329.

The site was divided into four warehouses, said Interior Ministry spokesperson Maj.-Gen. Saad Maan. Only one — housing electronic equipment and documents — had burned down, he said.

Firefighters were trying to stop the fire from spreading to the remaining three warehouses, where the ballot boxes are stored, he said. 

"It is possible there were also some ballot boxes in the warehouse that caught fire, but most of the important boxes are in the three warehouses where the fire has been controlled," he said in a video message from the site of the fire.

The law mandating a manual recount also mandated the board of the election commission be replaced by judges. Earlier on Sunday, the Supreme Judicial Council, Iraq's highest judicial authority, named the judges who will replace the commissioners.

The council also named judges to replace the commission's local chiefs in each of Iraq's 18 provinces, another measure mandated by parliament.

The board of commissioners has said it would appeal against the law forcing the recount.