Tens of Thousands Take Part in Early Voting in Iraqi Provincial Elections

Voting stations opened across Iraq Wed. in places such as military camps and govt. offices for the first ballots of this week's provincial elections. The election is Saturday, but voting opened on Wed. for Iraqis needed on duty on election day. Video by AP
By Zaid Sabah
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 29, 2009

BAGHDAD, Jan. 28 -- Tens of thousands of policemen and soldiers, doctors at hospitals, prisoners clad in orange jumpsuits and residents forced from contested towns cast early ballots Wednesday in provincial elections that will redraw Iraq's political landscape.

Regular voting is scheduled for Saturday to choose the equivalent of state legislatures in 14 of the country's 18 provinces. But early voting was allowed for certain groups, in particular the security forces, which will be deployed as part of a security clampdown. On election day, the government has ordered a nighttime curfew, the closing of Iraq's borders and airport, and a ban on traffic in towns and cities.

There was scattered violence Wednesday. Assailants gunned down two policemen in Tuz Khurmatu, 40 miles south of the disputed city of Kirkuk, and a bombing killed a policeman in the northern city of Mosul. But attacks so far have been relatively few compared with the onslaught that preceded Iraq's elections in 2005. Sunni Arabs largely boycotted that vote, delivering disproportionate power to Shiite Arabs and Kurds in some provinces.

Casting his vote at Nidhal High School for Girls, Lt. Gen. Hussein al-Awadi praised the quieter climate this time and suggested that sectarian tensions -- the Sunni and Shiite conflict that racked Baghdad in 2006 and 2007 -- had subsided.

"Today, these feelings have vanished," he said, his finger stained blue to prevent multiple voting. "Stability is apparent this time, and that was our ambition."

The three predominantly Kurdish provinces, part of an autonomous region in the north, will hold elections later this year. Voting in the province around Kirkuk, a city riven by competing ethnic claims, was delayed indefinitely.

In the 14 other provinces, where about 14,400 candidates are vying for 440 seats on the councils, the elections could bring a new alignment in almost each locale.

The Dawa party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose popularity has been bolstered by the decline in violence, is seeking to chip away at the power of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which controls four of the nine predominantly Shiite southern provinces. Followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric whose men have fought rival Shiites, the army and the U.S. military, are backing lists of nominally independent candidates.

"What makes us happy is the preparations we are seeing today -- a slap in the face of those who are betting that Iraqis will not go to the ballot boxes because they are despairing," Maliki said during a televised election rally in the southern city of Amarah.

In predominantly Sunni regions, secular and tribal forces have sought to end the near-monopoly on power of the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the few Sunni parties to take part in the 2005 elections. In two provinces, sectarian and ethnic leadership may actually shift. In Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, Sunni Arabs expect to take a majority of seats on a council dominated by Shiites and Kurds. They expect to win another majority in Nineveh province, around the city of Mosul, where Kurds now control 31 of 37 seats.

Signs of potential conflict emerged Wednesday, too.

In Fallujah, about 35 miles west of Baghdad, some residents stocked up on food, worrying that the victory of candidates campaigning under the umbrella of U.S.-backed tribes that defeated insurgents in 2007 might inspire reprisal attacks by insurgents or rivals in the Islamic Party.

More than 25,000 Kurds, displaced under the government of Saddam Hussein, were allowed to vote in Nineveh. Election officials said the number was far short of the 100,000 who demanded the right to vote.

"There is concern that these lists will be manipulated and exploited," said Ahmad Awwad, a candidate for al-Hadba-a, a Sunni Arab party in the province.

Special correspondents in Mosul, Kirkuk and Fallujah contributed to this report.

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