Shias queue for their first chance of power in 100 years

Click to follow

Iraq's Shias came out in force in their southern heartland yesterday to vote in an election which will give them power for the first time in 100 years.

Iraq's Shias came out in force in their southern heartland yesterday to vote in an election which will give them power for the first time in 100 years.

For the US and Britain, this was meant to be the showpiece away from the mayhem of Baghdad and the Sunni triangle.

But things rarely go according to script in Iraq and Anne Clwyd, Tony Blair's special envoy on human rights, found herself trapped in the coalition headquarters as half a dozen mortars were fired at polling stations in the morning.

Fielding interviews with British radio at the Basra Palace, the UK headquarters, rather than at polling stations where she was meant to be, the Labour MP spoke about the courage of the electorate braving terrorists.

And the voters did turn out despite the mortar attacks, which did not cause any casualties. One exploded near the Abu Alusawad Aldurali School at around 10.30am. The manager, Mohammed Ali Yaqoub, told the voters inside that it was a gas main explosion. The women ululated, he claimed, in a gesture of defiance.

The exact numbers who did vote, however, remained unclear. Queues formed in the morning at many of the voting centres, though not all. By the afternoon, they had shrunk to a trickle. And confusion reigned within some stations. At the Khadijah Al Koubra school in central Basra, Nufar Kaamal said that, as the election manager, he could vouch that half of the constituency of 6,000 had voted by lunchtime. That, declared Jaffar Sattar Jabbar, was "nonsense". It was he who was the manager and the correct figure was 85 per cent out of a constituency of 7,000.

The enthusiasm, however, was genuine for the first free vote in 50 years which - with a built-in demographic advantage and the knowledge that with the expected Sunni boycott of the polls - will give the Shias control in the country. At the al-Maqil polling station in north Basra, the long file of women comprised almost a third of around 400 queuing to vote in the morning. Zainab Nouri Rashid, was going to vote for List 169, a Shia coalition. "The list has been blessed by Ayatolah [Ali al-] Sistani. I am a Shia so it is my duty to vote for that. That is what my whole family is doing," she said.

Plenty of people insisted that the voting was not sectarian, that all Iraqis were one people. But others made no pretence about who they felt should hold the whip hand in the future. Naif Ali Hakim, 33, a teacher waiting to vote at the al-Harya centre, said "My father was killed by Saddam's forces in 1991. We have always been poor compared to Baghdad even though the oilfields are in the south. Now if we get political power we should get economic power as well."

Many families in the south suffered in Saddam's retribution after the Shia uprising of 1991 - encouraged by the Americans who then failed to help - collapsed. Abtoul Abdel Rahman, 45, a teacher, lost her brother, Manaam. "He was 30 years old when they took him away. We have not seen him since," she said. "We have waited a long time for this. I feel sorry for the Sunnis. They have lost a great opportunity."

The Americans have repeatedly charged that Iran was interfering in the election and bankrolling Shia Islamist parties such as Dawa and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) - both part of the Sistani list - with $20m (£10.6m). Waleed Ketan of the Iraqi National Accord, a secular party, claimed that Syed al-Battat, the man running the poll in the south for the Independent Electoral Commission for Iraq, had been a member of SCIRI and most of the election station managers in Basra were SCIRI sympathisers.

"The list with SCIRI has a chance of winning because they have taken over the polling stations," he said. "If that happens I shall leave the country, I do not want to live in an Islamist state."

Some voters were more sceptical. Moqtada Ali Riadh, 53, an engineer, said: "I am voting for List 169, and I fought in the war against Iran. This is Iraq, not Iran. What the Americans are saying is just to divide the people. We should take no notice."

Others insist that the elections are a sham. Hazim Abed Allakif, the head of the students' union at Basra University, said "People standing at the elections can only do so with the permission of the US and Britain. We regard them as agents. These are not free elections."