ground to a halt Wednesday ahead of Thursday's vote for the first four-year parliament since the ouster of Saddam Hussein
more than two years ago.
Campaigning - which kept a feverish pace in the south of Iraq and its Kurdish north, but was slow in Sunni Arab dominated areas - halted across the nation Wednesday.
Scattered violence in the Sunni towns
left four Iraqi policemen dead, according to wire reports. But the violence was far less than expected ahead of a crucial vote likely to decide Iraq's course for the near future.
In a speech Wednesday in Washington
, US President George W. Bush
called the Iraqi elections "crucial" to win the US's
war on terror.
"We are in Iraq today because our goal has always been more than the removal of brutal dictator," Bush said. "It is to leave a free and democratic Iraq in his place."
He also admitted that "much of the intelligence [prior to the war] turned out to be wrong. As president, I'm responsible for the decision to go into Iraq - and I'm also responsible for fixing what went wrong by reforming our intelligence capabilities," he said according to the White House
Bush also said that, while elections could bring some stability, "We cannot, and will not, leave Iraq until victory is achieved." The US has some 160,000 troops in Iraq.
In an effort to curb the movement of possible terrorists, the Iraqi government called for a week-long national holiday and imposed a 5 p.m. curfew. It also closed all borders and airports. Thousands of Kurdish militiamen took up positions every 100 meters along the road leading to the former strongholds of the al-Qaida-affiliated Ansar al-Islam, near Halabje.
A shuttered Baghdad was eerily quiet Wednesday, said locals in the capital.
But, ahead of elections, Iraq is still mired in strife. Shi'ites in the south launched street protests to condemn what were perceived as anti-Shi'ite statements made on the Al-Jazeera
Fadel al-Rubaei, a Shi'ite living in exile, said on a talk show broadcast by Al-Jazeera that Shi'ite clerics should not take part in politics, and he accused them of conspiring with the Americans against the mostly Sunni insurgents, according to the AP.
The protesters set fire to two political-party headquarters in Shi'ite-dominated southern cities.
In the Kurdish north, thousands broke the 5 p.m. curfew, piling into the streets brandishing banners and posters of Kurdish leaders. The celebrations, which lasted to midnight, quickly turned into a political rally for the Kurdish coalition. Here, where only Kurdish is spoken in the street, Arabs are distrusted and subject to lengthy security checks.
Some 15 million Iraqis are expected to head to about 33,000 polling stations on Thursday. There, they will chose between some 19 coalitions, representing some 900 lists of parties. Most Iraqis are expected to vote on Thursday and are likely to vote along ethnic lines.
Sunni clerics and tribal leaders have for the past week been calling on their supporters to vote. Sunni Arabs boycotted the elections in January, limiting their influence in the current government.
It is hoped that a large Sunni turnout could reduce violence in this war-torn nation.
Some 30,000 Iraqis have died since the US invaded Iraq in March 2003.
The choice of parties can seem bewildering to outsiders. In the Kurdish-controlled areas, the two leading and largely secular Kurdish parties make up the region's largest coalition.
But voters could choose between seemingly identical parties like the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan
, the Islamic Union of Kurdistan and the Islamic Group of Kurdsitan. The last is running within the Kurdish coalition.
Ahead of elections, most Iraqis, Sunni Arabs, Shi'ites, and Kurds all seemed to prefer a strong-man leader. On a military base outside the Kurdish town of Halabje, soldiers broke ranks and cast ballots Tuesday for Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite running on an mixed list, according to an officer with the Asiash, the Kurdish internal security service. Allawi, who ran the Iraqi Interim Government in 2004, is considered a strong ruler.
Elsewhere in the Kurdish north, voters said they would consider Allawi. Others, frustrated by what they said was a dearth of different candidates, said they would not vote.
Twenty-year-old Aram Qana
watched the frenzied jubilation in Sulemaniya and pronounced he would not exercise his right to vote. "I want a leader like the Americans have, not the same people for years," he said.
For that reason, he said, "I believe voting means betraying your future."
Ismail Sai'd, his body hanging out of a beat-up BMW, marveled that Iraqis had the right to chose. "Look around you, children are in the streets, we are speaking Kurdish, we are ruled by Kurdish leaders and no one is stopping us. We are free, and must vote to keep it that way."