iraq elections 298 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
Iraqis voted in a historic parliamentary election Thursday, with strong turnout reported in Sunni Arab areas that had shunned balloting last January, bolstering US hopes of calming the insurgency enough to begin withdrawing its troops.
(To read a special Jeruslaem Post report from Iraq, click here).
Several explosions rocked Baghdad as the polls opened, including a large one near the heavily fortified Green Zone. A civilian was killed when a mortar shell exploded near a polling station in the northern city of Tal Afar, and a bomb killed a hospital guard near a polling station in Mosul.
But violence overall was light and did not appear to discourage Iraqis, some of whom came to vote wrapped in their country's flag on a bright, sunny day.
An alliance of Shi'ite religious parties, which dominate the current government, was expected to win the largest number of seats - but not enough to form a new administration without a coalition with rival groups. That could set the stage for lengthy and possibly bitter negotiations to produce a government.
Up to 15 million Iraqis were electing 275 members of the first full-term parliament since Saddam Hussein's ouster from among 7,655 candidates running on 996 tickets, representing Shi'ite, Sunni, Kurdish, Turkomen and sectarian interests across a wide political spectrum. Iraqis do not vote for individual candidates, but instead for lists - or tickets - that compete for the seats in each of the 18 provinces.
Some preliminary returns were expected late Thursday, but final returns could take days, if not weeks.
Sunnis appeared to be turning out in large numbers - even in insurgent bastions such as Ramadi and Haqlaniyah - in an effort to curb the power of Shi'ite clerical parties who now control the government. Major insurgent groups had promised not to attack polling stations, and some polling centers in Ramadi were guarded by masked gunmen.
"I came here and voted in order to prove that Sunnis are not a minority in this country," said lawyer Yahya Abdul-Jalil in Ramadi. "We lost a lot during the last elections, but this time we will take our normal and key role in leading this country."
Teacher Khalid Fawaz in the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah said he also participated "so that the Sunnis are no longer marginalized."
And 28-year-old college student Yassin Mohammed Samarra said he voted so that "no particular (religious) sect controls the country."
In Fallujah, which was overrun by US forces in November 2004, hundreds packed a high school polling station, with many saying they saw the vote as a way to get rid of the Americans and the Shiite-dominated government.
"It's an extremist government we would like an end to the occupation," said Ahmed Majid, 31. "Really the only true solution is through politics. But there is the occupation and the only way that will end is with weapons."
Shi'ite parties had urged their followers to turn out in large numbers, too. The country's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, told Shi'ites to support candidates who defend their principles - a veiled warning against turning toward secular political movements.
"They are clerics, and clerics do not steal our money," said Abbasiya Ahmad, 80, as she voted for the Shiite religious bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, at a Baghdad polling station. "We want people who protect our money."
The Bush administration hopes the new parliament will include more Sunni Arabs to help establish a government that can lure other Sunnis away from the insurgency. Such a development might make it possible for the United States and its partners to start to draw down their troops next year.
Security was tight, with tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police guarding polling stations, with US and other coalition forces standing by in case of trouble. US troops and bomb-detecting dogs checked thousands of polling stations before handing over control to Iraqi police. A nationwide traffic ban was in effect to prevent suicide bombs.
Turnout was also brisk in the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, especially in Kurdish districts.
"This is the day to get our revenge from Saddam," said Kurdish voter Chiman Saleh, a Kirkuk housewife who said two of her brothers were killed by the ousted regime.
Ethnic tensions in Kirkuk, claimed by Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen, would be seen, however. Norjan Adel, a pollwatcher for the Turokman Front, complained of iregularities by the Kurds, including multiple voting.
She prevented a Kurdish policeman from entering the station carrying a flag of the self-ruleds Kurdish region, saying "I only recognize the Iraqi flag and any other flag is a joke."
In Baghdad's predominantly Sunni Arab Azamiyah district, the head of one polling station said that by midday, about one-third of the 3,500 registered voters had turned out. In January, many polling stations in Azamiyah didn't even open.
At Azamiyah's al-Nuaman school, the street on either side of the building was blocked with cement barricades and razor wire. People arrived on foot in small numbers, women were not allowed to take their bags inside, and cell phones were banned.
Voters at the station had little enthusiasm for the Shi'ite coalition that has governed the country since April 28. In January, few people in Azamiyah voted and some polling stations didn't even open.
"We want to choose Sunni candidates. We want them to be in power because they are capable of providing security and they do not kill or beat us," said Khali Ibrahim, 70, as he hobbled up the stairs leaning on a cane.
Such comments reflect the sectarian tensions that threaten the nation's future and the Bush administration strategy - Sunnis have repeatedly complained of abuse at the hands of Shiite-dominated security forces.
President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, highlighted a key looming fight - possible amendments to the constitution - as he cast his ballot in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah.
"I hope that the Iraqi people will stay united. We hope that the people will vote to keep the constitution that was approved by the Iraqi people," he said.
Election of the new parliament, which will serve a four-year term, marks the final step in the US blueprint for democracy. The vote will cap a process that included the transfer of sovereignty last year, selection of an interim parliament Jan. 30, and ratification of the constitution in October. The new parliament will name a government, including a new prime minister.
"In spite of the violence, Iraqis have met every milestone," President Bush said in Washington.
For the Bush administration, the stakes are nearly as high as for the Iraqis. A successful election would represent a much-needed political victory amid growing doubts about the war among the American public.
"We are in Iraq today because our goal has always been more than the removal of a brutal dictator," Bush said. "It is to leave a free and democratic Iraq in its place."
Insurgent threats and boycott calls kept many Sunnis at home in the January election despite a national turnout of nearly 60 percent. That enabled Shiites and Kurds to dominate the current legislature, sharpening communal tensions and fueling the insurgency.
This time, more Sunnis Arabs were in the race, and changes in the election law all but guaranteed strong Sunni representation.
More than 1,000 Sunni clerics called on their followers to vote, and insurgent groups, including al-Qaida in Iraq and the Islamic Army in Iraq, pledged not to attack polling stations.
US officials warned that a successful election alone will not end the insurgency. Also needed is a government capable of reconciling Iraq's disparate groups.
The Americans also were eager to avoid protracted negotiations to choose a new prime minister and Cabinet - a process that dragged on for three months after the last vote.