Independent Election Commission spokesman Adil al-Lami told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq yesterday that widely publicized early estimates that some 70 percent of Iraq's eligible voters came to the polls were overly enthusiastic "rough estimates." That estimate was later downsized to some 60 percent.
But al-Lami said he would consider estimates of 40 to 55 percent turnout to be more likely.
"Yes, the figures we announced [on 30 January] were based on what was communicated to us by polling centers. They are estimates based on observations by polling center directors. For instance, how many voters had entered by 1 pm and the queues that had formed," al-Lami said. "So the percentage was a rough estimate. I think in all elections in any country of the world the turnout will not equal the original number of voters. It cannot go higher than 70 percent. If we get 40, 30, 50, or 55 percent, this will be a very good turnout."
Voting officials have said it could take at least 10 more days to know the final outcome of the vote as ballot boxes from around the country arrive in Baghdad. A staff of 200 is working around the clock on some 80 computers to tally the ballots in the headquarters of the interim government within the capital's heavily protected Green Zone.
But even as the counting continues, fears are mounting that voter turnout in Sunni-populated areas could be too low to assure the community of adequate representation in the National Assembly.
Polling officials have described a highly mixed picture of voting in central and north-central Iraq. There were crowded polling centers in parts of Mosul but deserted ones in Tikrit. In the mixed Sunni-Shi'a town of Baq'uba, turnout was an estimated 30 percent.
That contrasts with large crowds at polling stations across Shi'a-majority southern Iraq and in Kurdish-administered northern Iraq.
The possibility that Iraq's formerly dominant Sunnis largely stayed at home would be in line with calls by some community leaders for a boycott of the election. Those calls cited security concerns and fears that the poll would hand political power in Iraq to the Shi'a majority. However, some Sunni leaders argued against boycotting and ran as candidates for the National Assembly.
In a bid now to reach out to the Sunni parties that stayed out of the election, Iraqi interim President Ghazi al-Yawir -- himself a Sunni -- said yesterday he hopes they still will look for ways to join the political process.
"I carry a lot of respect for them. I think they are mature enough to realize that this is a political process that is inclusive and everybody has to be in," al-Yawir said. "I think for the time being we still have to work on a dialogue with them."
Ayad Samarrai, a spokesman for the Sunni mainstream Iraqi Islamic Party, which stayed out of the poll, said yesterday that his party has not ruled out taking part in the new government. But Samarrai said the government would have to address two big concerns: how Sunnis will be given a fair share of power and when foreign troops would leave Iraq.
In recent hours, other key Iraqi politicians have also moved to stress the need to find a way to assure the Sunni community is represented in the new order.
Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'a, promised yesterday to launch "a national dialogue to ensure that all Iraqis have a voice in the next government" during the remainder of his term in office.
And Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim -- the top candidate of the main Shi'a coalition in the election, the United Iraqi Alliance -- said that his group insists on forming a partnership government that includes all segments of the Iraqi people.
Analysts say it is too early to say how Sunni parties could still be included in the political process but that several options exist.
Ammar al-Shahbander, a regional expert at the London-based Institute of War and Peace Reporting, said one option would be for the coalitions that did well in the poll to modify their candidate lists to include more Sunnis among them. This might require some existing candidates on the lists to step aside to make room for incoming Sunnis.
"Because the majority of the lists are not 100 percent determined, there is still room for inviting Sunni players to become part of the parliament and part of the political process," Al-Shahbander said. "These [candidate] lists are not really official, because the voting was for the party list, not for the names on that list."
In the 30 January election, each voter was permitted to cast his ballot for one of some 100 lists of candidates, not for individual candidates themselves.
Al-Shahbander said that if the parties fail to accommodate enough Sunnis, another chance to bring them into the political process will occur when the National Assembly chooses the next interim government.
He said that Iraqi political leaders will be under strong pressure -- particularly from the United States -- to produce a balanced government in which top spots are shared among leaders from the country's different communities.
The analyst said that a third option -- increasing the size of the National Assembly to add seats for Sunnis -- has little support inside Iraq. The reason is that changing the size of the institution after it has been agreed upon would set a precedent of flexibility that could later come back to haunt Iraq's efforts to build firm new structures of government.