Sexism aside, polling in Basra proceeds without serious abuses

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Yaqoub Yusuf saw nothing wrong with showing his wife, Mujde, where to put her cross on the ballot paper. That was before he was confronted by the formidable Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne.

The Liberal Democrat peer and MEP, who had formed a European Parliament team to monitor yesterday's election in Iraq, drew Mujde aside and demanded through an interpreter: "Did you want to vote differently from your husband?"

No, she was happy for Yaqoub to help her, she shyly replied, but Lady Nicholson was not satisfied. Summoning an election official, she complained that the voting booths were too small to ensure privacy: "They were larger in the January election." She did not see another man, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, simply take his heavily-veiled wife's ballot paper and mark it for her.

Apart from such examples of sexism, polling at al-Hurriya (Freedom) school and two other locations in central Basra proceeded briskly and without abuses. Many people were voting for the first time, especially in a mixed Sunni-Shia area, an indication that Sunnis had heeded calls to abandon their previous boycott of the polls.

But it also appeared that some Shias were staying away, possibly reflecting discontent in the community's southern stronghold with the performance of the government they had supported overwhelmingly in January.

Away from the polling stations, children took the opportunity to ride bikes and play football in streets from which all civilian vehicle traffic had been banned.

The Basra police, whose loyalty to central authority has been questioned, controlled the centre of the city. They were reinforced by Iraqi army soldiers patrolling in pickup trucks.

British troops, the length of whose stay in Iraq may well depend on the outcome of the election, were almost all confined to barracks, apart from a few manning checkpoints on the edge of the city. "We are keeping a very low profile," said a British official. "We don't want to be seen as taking part in the electoral process." By the time the polls closed at 5pm there had been no incidents requiring intervention by coalition forces.