In the face of bomb and mortar attacks that killed 38 people and wounded 89 others, Iraqis went to the polls yesterday to elect a new parliament.
In a sinister new twist to insurgent methods in attacking civilians, explosives were placed in rooms rented by bombers in two apartment blocks in Baghdad and later detonated, destroying them both. This tactic, employed against the majority Shia community, could spark off a new wave of fear in the capital despite heavy police and army security, and checkpoints every few hundred yards. In one residential building in the Shaab district of Baghdad some 25 people were killed by a bomb.
Counting was already underway last night, but it is unlikely that the election for the 325-member parliament will produce a majority for any single party or coalition of parties, and a new government will only be formed after weeks of hard bargaining over top jobs and control of ministries. The outcome of negotiations is likely to be the return of a Shia-Kurdish coalition, but possibly under a new prime minister, replacing Nouri al-Maliki.
The US is watching the results of the election nervously, fearing that any escalation in political turmoil and violence might put in doubt the Obama administration's plan to withdraw all its combat troops by the end of August this year, and its remaining soldiers by the end of 2011.
In Washington, President Barack Obama paid tribute to Iraqi voters' courage. "I have great respect for the millions of Iraqis who refused to be deterred by acts of violence, and who exercised their right to vote," he said.
He added that their participation showed that "the Iraqi people have chosen to shape their future through the political process".
The poll yesterday saw millions of people, out of the 19 million Iraqis eligible to vote, go to polling stations in the first parliamentary election since 2005. Unlike that election, which was largely boycotted by the formerly dominant Sunni Arab community, the Sunni appeared to have voted in large numbers this time.
This was despite threats from the Islamic State of Iraq, the umbrella organisation for al-Qaida, that it would target voters, and despite the sporadic mortar attacks that took place on polling places in Baghdad and Fallujah.
A Mosul provincial council member was shot dead in an area disputed between Arabs and Kurds. Many Sunni consider past boycotts to have been a mistake because they benefited Shia and Kurdish parties. Mr Maliki, who is leading the State of Law coalition, said that attacks yesterday were "just noises to scare the Iraqi people from voting". He has presented himself as the strong leader who has brought back security to Iraq, crushed the Shia militias, negotiated the departure of US forces, and made a start in restoring services. His own Dawa Party held only 10 seats in the previous parliament, but he has the great advantage of a $60bn [£40bn] budget and millions of government jobs, which puts him at the head of great patronage network. He enjoys considerable, but as yet unmeasured, popularity.
The Prime Minister may have been weakened by a series of large bomb attacks since August last year in which suicide bombers detonated trucks filled with explosives outside government ministries and hotels, inflicting heavy civilian casualties. The political campaign has been dominated since January by a furore over the banning of parliamentary candidates, mostly Sunni or secular Shia, alleged to have had links with the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein. Mr Maliki went along with this to make sure he retained his core Shia support, but his actions disillusioned some Sunni.
The main opposition to Mr Maliki are two other coalitions – the Iraqi National Alliance and Iraqiya – the first of which is more overtly Shia and the second of which, led by the former prime minister Iyad Alawi, claims to be more secular and to enjoy Sunni support. The Iraqi Alliance groups the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which is close to Iran, with the supporters of the nationalist and anti-American Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Formerly deeply hostile to each other, the two parties were brought together by Ahmed Chalabi, a leading Shia politician.
Crucial to forming a new government will be the support of the Kurds, who make up a fifth of the Iraqi population and usually succeed in positioning themselves as kingmakers. Over the last two years, their leaders have become increasingly hostile to Mr Maliki, primarily because of quarrels over control of a wide band of territory in northern Iraq, including the oil city of Kirkuk.
Preliminary results in the election are due be announced on 10-11 March, based on votes cast at 30 per cent of polling stations.
Across Iraq: Voters' hopes
n "We have to go out and vote because there is too much corruption. We have suffered for a long time but are getting nothing back from the government. I think Maliki himself is honest but he is surrounded by corrupt people."
Haidar al-Habshi, a Shia tailor from Kadhamiyah
n "This government is not for all the people. They tried to stop the Sunni parties taking part in the election saying they were Baathists. I want to vote for a secular party but everything is now divided along religious lines. This is wrong."
Omar Mohammed Ghilani, a Sunni, in Arasat
n "I pray every day to see a good man come to power to save us from the sufferings we are living. Explosions and killing occur every day. All we want is a good man."
Shaker Mahmoud Jassem, Basra
n "We gave our votes for Kurdistan. We don't care about Baghdad. This is Kurdistan."
Badri Hurmuz, 74, near Mosul
n "When I put the ballot paper in the box, my tears fell ... I am sure he [her dead husband] watched me from the grave while I voted for the Kurdish people. My vote will heal my wounds from when the Iraqi army shot him dead in Saddam's time."
Fatma Aziz, Sulaimaniya, in Iraqi Kurdistan
n "Democracy in Iraq is chaotic. Everyone lies."
Abdul Rasheed al-Tamimi, a labourer in Shia city of NajafReuse content