Voting begins in Iraq under tight security

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Iraqis passed through security checkpoints and razor wire cordons today to vote in provincial elections that are considered a crucial test of the nation's stability as US officials consider the pace of troop withdrawals.

Polls opened shortly after dawn after a step-by-step security clampdown across the country, including traffic bans in central Baghdad and other major cities and a closure of border crossings and airports.

There were no reports of serious violence as voting got under way. In Tikrit, about 80 miles north of Baghdad, three mortar shells exploded near a polling station, but caused no casualties, said police, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.

A bomb was defused after being found near a Tikrit voting center, police added.

In the Baghdad neighborhood of Karradah, Iraqi police and army soldiers manned a series of checkpoints — some only 200 yards apart. Stores were closed and the streets cleared of cars.

A group of US soldiers patrolled on foot — well away from polling centers. The US military assisted in security preparations for the elections, but said troops would only be called in on election day if needed.

In the western city of Fallujah — once the centre of the Sunni insurgency — police used their patrol cars to help some people get to voting stations.

More than 14,000 candidates are running for 440 seats on the influential councils in all of Iraq's provinces except for the autonomous Kurdish region in the north and the province that the includes oil-rich city of Kirkuk, where ethnic groups were unable to reach a power-sharing formula. Polls were to close at 5 pm local time (2pm GMT). Preliminary results are not expected before Tuesday.

Many voters went home waving purple-tinted index fingers, which are dipped in ink after casting ballots. The ink-stained fingers became an iconic image of Iraq's first post-Saddam Hussein elections four years ago.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, shadowed by a bodyguard, dipped his finger into an ink box after voting in the walled Green Zone enclave in Baghdad.

He appealed for a high turnout - which would help boost his government's attempts to use the election as a sign of progress.

"This gives a picture of trust in the government, the elections and the people's right to take part in this democratic process," he said.

Although violence is sharply down — and with pre-election attacks relatively limited — authorities were unwilling to take any risks.

An election without major attacks or charges of irregularities would provide a critical boost for Iraqi authorities as the US military hands over more security responsibilities. But serious bloodshed or voting chaos could steal momentum from supporters of a fast-paced withdrawal of US combat troops next year.

The provincial councils have no direct sway in national affairs, but carry significant authority through their ability to negotiate local business deals, allocate funds and control some regional security operations.

The election is also a possible dress rehearsal for bigger showdowns in national elections later this year, when the al-Maliki's US-allied government could face a power challenge from the country's largest Shiite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

The security measures implemented for the election brought back memories of the most deadly years of the war. The closely monitored frontiers with Iran and Syria were among borders that were sealed. A nighttime curfew also was in place, apparently to block extremist groups that plant roadside bombs under cover of darkness.

Voters in many places passed through double-ring search cordons. Women teachers and other civilians were recruited to help search for possible female suicide bombers.

Iraqi helicopters swept over major cities and aircraft monitored stretches of the Iranian border, said security officials.

In Baqouba, the capital of the violence-wracked Diyala Province northwest of Baghdad, long lines formed.

"We were not able to vote during the 2005 elections because of the deteriorating security situation," said Ahmed Jassim, 19. "But now we feel safe enough to go out and vote."

Iraqi special forces in full combat gear swarmed streets in Baghdad's Fadhil district, which was once a hub in the Sunni insurgents' car bomb network. The tense atmosphere there contrasted with the more relaxed mood in other parts of the city.

In Baghdad's Azamiyah neighborhood — once a stronghold of support for Saddam's regime — a voting station at a girls' high school still carried a small image of Saddam, calling him the nation's "hero and martyr."

But one voter, Zaid Abdul-Karim, 44, said the elections will hopefully ease tensions between Shiites who gained power by Saddam's downfall and Sunnis who perceive themselves as sidelined since the 2003 invasion.

"These are the people we need now: people who represent everyone in Iraq and have no sectarian bias," said Abdul-Karim, a government employee.

In the southern Shiite city of Basra, 40-year-old Haidar Mahmoud said he felt pressure to vote for the Supreme Council candidates, but changed his mind and backed al-Maliki's supporters.

"If it wasn't for al-Maliki there would still be killing on the street. Maybe I can change Basra for the better by voting today," he said.

Among Sunni groups, powerful newcomers could reshape the political hierarchy.

In Anbar province, the Sunni tribes which rose up against al-Qaida and other insurgents — and led to a turning point of the war — are now seeking to transform their fame into council seats and significantly increase their role in wider Iraqi affairs. Their gains could come at the expense of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic party in the current government.

In a northern Baghdad neighborhood, a couple returned from Kuwait, where they had fled in 2004 to escape the violence. Salih Zawad Ali and his wife Zeinab looked longingly around the Sulaykh district after voting.

"I hope and pray we can come back," she said.