A Baghdad warehouse being used to store ballot boxes for Iraq’s contested parliamentary election caught fire on Sunday, ahead of a nationwide recount effort.
The fire started hours after a number of judges were officially tasked with carrying out the manual process of recounting the votes from May’s election.
The office of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi released a statement Sunday calling the incident a “plot to sabotage the country and its democratic process.”
“We will take the necessary steps and will strike with an iron fist anyone who wishes to destabilize the security of the country and its citizens,” the statement read.
Iraq’s civil defense force was able to contain the fire and stop it from spreading to the main warehouse housing the majority of the ballots, according to General Saad Maan, spokesman for Iraq’s Interior Ministry.
In a video sent to the media, Maan is shown pointing to the main warehouse and saying that the fire was contained before reaching it.
A thick cloud of black smoke billowed in the background as Maan showed the complex, which contains a number of smaller warehouses.
It was not immediately clear what caused the fire, the extent of the damage, or whether it would affect the planned recount.
Judges named to head recount
Earlier on Sunday, the Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council named the judges who will take over the independent electoral commission to carry out the manual recount of last month’s elections as per the parliament’s recommendation, according to a statement.
The May 12 elections gave the lead to a coalition led by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, but a new government has yet to be formed.
The elections were marred by complaints about the alleged manipulation of the electronic voting system used for the first time in May.
The parliament voted in favor of a nationwide manual recount last Wednesday after Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, whose coalition came third in the voting, said the recount was necessary considering the reported violations.
The electoral commission said it would appeal the decision.
The SJC convened on Sunday to name the judges and to meet with officials from the electoral commission to “understand how it works and get a briefing on the nature of complaints it received regarding the 2018 legislative elections,” the statement said.
The SJC had deployed a committee to the electoral commission on June 7th to “take the necessary measures to protect ballot boxes and the equipment used in the elections.”
Election produced Al-Sadr victory
The Saeroon Alliance led by al-Sadr, the Shia who many US military officials hold responsible for the deaths of US troops, won by taking the most number of seats.
The Saeroon Alliance claimed 54 of the 328 seats in the parliament, the most of any coalition. The Fatah Alliance, led by Hadi al-Amiri, took 48 seats, while the Victory Alliance, led by Washington’s preferred candidate, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, won 42 seats.
Al-Sadr, who in 2008 was named as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people, campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, allied himself with the Communist Party and rode a wave of populist sentiment to victory. An opponent of Iranian influence in his country, al-Sadr is also a longtime critic of the United States and its role in Iraq.
Al-Sadr was once the leader of the Mehdi Army, a powerful Shia militia which was blamed for some of the worst violence between 2005 and 2008 in Iraq. Some of his militiamen fought and killed US and Iraqi soldiers. He formally disbanded the group in 2008, announcing it was transitioning into a movement to oppose secularism and Western thought.
CNN’s Mohammed Tawfeeq and Hamdi Alkhshali contributed to this report from Atlanta. CNN’s Aqeel Najim contributed to this report from Baghdad