Iraqis Stream to the Polls Amid Tight Security

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 31, 2009; 3:30 AM

BAGHDAD, Jan. 31 -- Iraqis streamed passed police cordons and barbed wire as they went to the polls on Saturday to vote in their first elections in four years, widely seen as a test of Iraq's stability as the U.S. role in Iraq diminishes.

The all-important provincial elections are viewed as a key indicator of whether the nation can build upon fragile security gains and address imbalances in power that still plague many areas. More than 14,000 candidates are running for 440 seats to lead councils that are the equivalent of state legislatures in the United States.

The elections are unfolding in all of Iraq's provinces except three in the autonomous Kurdish region and the province that includes the disputed city of Kirkuk, where ethnic groups were unable to reach a power-sharing agreement paving the way for elections.

The polls opened shortly after dawn following a heavy security clampdown launched on Friday that included the closing of Iraq's borders and airspace coupled with bans on vehicle traffic and the deployment of thousands of security personnel around polling stations. Polls are scheduled to close by 5 pm.

In the first few hours of voting Saturday morning, there were no reports of serious violence or fraud marring vote. A peaceful and fair election would boost the credibility and image of Iraq's government as it takes over more security responsibilities from U.S. forces.

In Baghdad's Karrada enclave, voters trickled into a polling station at a girls school, as Iraqi security forces and U.S. troops patrolled the streets.

"I came early because I feel this election is very important to reward the officials that worked for Iraq's unity and reject sectarianism," said Ghania Aboud Jasim, 60, after she voted. "I am here trying to change the situation of my country."

In the southern holy city of Najaf, where Shiite parties are in a fierce struggle for power, the morning turnout was below expectations, said election officials. In other parts of Iraq, officials also reported low turnout in the first hours

Hassan Al Kurdi, 28, came out to vote because he was fed up with Iraq's ruling Islamist parties. "Clerics and religious people have not succeeded in leading the province," said Kurdi after he stepped out of a polling station in Najaf. "I hope this election will bring in secular people in the provincial council of Najaf, who can introduce progress and make development."

In Anbar Province, Sunni tribal leaders and former insurgents are competing for power against established Sunni politicians. In 2005, most Sunnis boycotted the elections creating imbalances on the provincial councils as Shiites and Kurds grabbed a disproportionate share of power.

In Fallujah, Anbar's second largest city, women were arriving to polling stations to cast votes, unprecedented in a conservative tribal society where women are not allowed to mingle freely with men. Many wore customary veils; female volunteers searched the bodies of each woman for weapons and bombs. Female suicide bombers have committed numerous attacks in Iraq over the past year.

"I came to vote because I want to see women representing women of Fallujah and Anbar and to prove through my participation that women are here and will play an important role," said Iman Karkaz, a college professor in Fallujah and women activist. "For sure this election will bring changes. The more women who take part in the election that more likely this change will happen."

Special correspondents in Baghdad, Najaf, Fallujah and other parts of Iraq contributed to this report.

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