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Middle East

Enthusiasm - and wariness - as Basra prepares to vote

Basra's mobile phones have been buzzing incessantly for the past few weeks as candidates implore the local population by text message to vote in tomorrow's election.

Today the printing presses that have been churning out leaflets finally fell quiet, their wares now mingling with the sewage that still fills too many of the city's streets.

Across Iraq's second largest city, the British main area of operations for almost six years, pick-up trucks have been circling with loud speakers. Posters of portly men in suits stare down at the locals, a visible difference from the host of severe looking clerics that once dominated the walls.

The enthusiasm of a youthful democracy is palpable as Basrawis face a dizzying array of 1,272 candidates competing for just 35 seats. People lining up at the pomegranate smoothie stalls or perambulating down the riverside corniche have been holding lively, passionate discussions as they prepare to vote.

Queues are expected to be slow going at the cities 3,360 polling stations where the voters will first be faced with a list of the 82 parties before having to consult a booklet of candidates to make their final choice.

Among them is Salah Al-Rekhayis, of the Movement of Free Iraqis, who is bidding to become the first member of the, often overlooked, black community to be voted into power. Mr Al-Rekhayis, from Az Zubayr, a town south west of Basra, insisted that it was the US President Barack Obama who inspired him to run.

While security has improved beyond recognition since Operation Charge of the Knights last March, when Iraqi security forces backed by the Americans and Brits drove the insurgents out of the city, the locals have many issues to challenge their elected representatives about. Why, in such a naturally wealthy country, are they still subjected to problems with sewage, unemployment, electricity and water, they want to know.

But the glee with which the city's 1,340,000 registered voters have welcomed their first opportunity to stand in judgement of the four-year-old provincial government has been tempered by a fear that the violence will return. On Thursday a driver for the sewage department was killed by a roadside bomb in Basra, the third in January. Two Iraqi border police died in earlier attacks.

While the number of incidents are radically down from the days when the militias dominated the city, it is still treble the explosions felt in December and the local security forces have been wary of any outbreaks of intimidation during the election.

All leave has been cancelled for the 28,000 Iraqi police and soldiers who have flooded the city in the lead up to the voting, attempting to convince the population that it is safe to take part. A hotline has encouraged locals to tip the security services off to any militia activity.

The 4,100 British service personnel in the area, who have assisted in planning and mentoring, will be nowhere in evidence tomorrow, deliberately disappearing in favour of their Iraqi counterparts.

However, they will remain alert, ready to provide a quick reaction force or casualty evacuation if the situation explodes.

"We will all be ready if something goes wrong and General Mohammed's troops can not cope but they will cope," said Lieutenant Colonel Dickie Winchester, spokesman for the British forces.

Observers from the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission as well as the Arab League, Turkey, the US and Britain have been monitoring the election.

But the British remain wary of what will happen when the results are announced around 2 February before a two-week challenge period.

Lt Col Winchester explained: "There are no indications that there will be significant violence. The Iraqi Security Forces remain on alert, and are prepared to counter violence, should it break out once the results are issued, in a ‘bad loser' scenario. That said, all major parties – including Muqtada al-Sadr's party – have called on people to vote in large numbers. Noone is boycotting the election and nobody has said anything about violence."