Divisions forgotten for a day as Iraqis queue up to vote

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Iraqis went to the polls in large numbers yesterday to elect for the first time a parliament representing all communities. A loud explosion heralded the start of voting in Baghdad, but the level of violence was low.

In Sunni districts of the capital, which boycotted previous elections, there was a jubilant atmosphere as people queued at the polling stations.

Ahmed Fadhil, an engineer in the Sunni district of al-Jihad in west Baghdad, said: "I am very happy because it is the first time that we Sunni Arabs have voted in a democratic election." He was voting for the Sunni religious parties.

Most of the 15 million Iraqis eligible to vote seemed to be opting for religious or ethnic parties. In the solidly Shia district of Jadriyah, a shopkeeper, Saad Abbas, said he was voting for the United Iraqi Alliance, the clerical coalition. He said: "It represents the Iraqi people, our hopes of freedom after 35 years of Saddam Hussein's oppression.

With cars banned from the streets there was a placid atmosphere in and around the Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim school, one of the polling stations in Jadriyah. The political and religious sympathies of the neighbourhood are revealed by the name of the school, called after a Shia religious notable murdered by the old regime.

Voters have become used to dipping their fingers in purple indelible ink to prevent them voting twice. Talib Ibrahim Hussein, the headmaster of the school and in charge of the polling station, said he expected a 90 per cent turnout by the 2,600 eligible voters in his district. He was worried about running out of ballot boxes.

Only occasionally were there signs that the election was taking place in the most dangerous city in the world. A couple asked Mr Hussein if they could vote in Jadriyah, explaining that they had been recently forced out of the largely Sunni district of Dohra in south Baghdad by death threats because they were Shia. Mr Hussein agreed to let them vote.

The voters who were not voting for the religious parties opted for Iyad Allawi, the former prime minister, standing on a secular and nationalist ticket. He has presented himself as a strong non-sectarian and nationalist leader who will restore security. His candidacy is much favoured by the US and Britain in the hope of preventing Iraq splitting apart.

"I voted for Iyad Allawi because he is a strong man." Said Jawad Othman al-Obeidi. "He will help people like my uncle who lost their jobs because they were in the Baath party." Umm Ali, a housewife and a Shia, also expressed sympathy for Mr Allawi, but was nervous that he would bring back the Baath party. She said: "I hope he will distinguish between Saddamists and Baathists."

Many Sunni voters said their community had made a mistake in not voting in the January election. This left the Shia and Kurds in total charge of the government. Ahmed Shaab Ahmed, a shopkeeper, said: "As Sunni we committed a great error when we did not participate in that election." The Sunnis will be looking to get 55 seats in the 275-member parliament.

But this will not necessarily give them much influence or many ministerial jobs. Most of these are still likely to go to the Shia and the Kurds. It will be two or three weeks before final results are announced and much longer, possibly March, before a government is formed.

Much of the talk around the polling stations had nothing to do with the election but concerned a rumour which had swept Baghdad overnight that the drinking water from the taps was poisoned. It is not clear how the story started, but by 1am yesterday mosques were broadcasting panicky instructions not to drink it.

The Health Ministry later issued a statement denying anything was wrong.

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