Iraq's Voters Cast Ballots Under Intense Security

Millions of Iraqis voted peacefully on Jan. 31 in the country's first provincial elections since 2005.
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 1, 2009

BAGHDAD, Jan. 31 -- Millions of Iraqis voted peacefully Saturday in elections widely seen as a key test of Iraq's stability and foreshadowing the struggles for power and patronage that will shape the country as the U.S. role here diminishes.

The elections, the country's first in four years, were remarkable for the absence of serious attacks, highlighting security gains in the past year. But the polling took place under intense security, a reminder that Iraq is far from reaching a state of normalcy. The government sealed its borders, closed its airspace and deployed thousands of policemen to cordon off polling stations and search voters for weapons as U.S. and Iraqi forces patrolled streets. Voter turnout was lower than expected in some areas, election officials said.

Still, thousands of women, including many in conservative tribal areas, cast ballots, many for the first time. Voters brought their families to participate in only the second elections since the fall of President Saddam Hussein and by far the most open and competitive. More than 14,000 candidates contested for 440 seats to lead influential local councils, the equivalent of state legislatures in the United States.

"I am so happy," Raad al-Shimari, 30, declared in the Kadhamiyah neighborhood of Baghdad, flashing a forefinger stained with purple ink indicating he had just voted. "I chose the person that will represent me."

After the polls closed Saturday evening, U.N. and Iraqi officials declared the elections -- one of the most heavily monitored by independent observers in recent Middle Eastern history -- as transparent and credible. "This is a good day for Iraq's democracy," said Staffan de Mistura, the top U.N. official in Iraq.

What happens next could prove to be an even greater test for a nation in the midst of great transition. The election results, expected in a few days, are poised to recalibrate the balance of power between ethnic groups and within sects, setting the stage for fresh contests for influence and new political alliances.

"The hegemony of the big political blocs will not be like they were after the last elections," said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish legislator. "The competition between the blocs will intensify; new coalitions will form."

The most dramatic shifts in power are expected in majority Sunni areas. Most Sunnis boycotted the 2005 elections, fearing threats from insurgents and heeding orders of tribal leaders who denounced the U.S. occupation. That allowed Shiites and Kurds to win a disproportionate share of seats on provincial councils. On Saturday, voter turnout was particularly high in Anbar province, where the Sunni insurgency was launched.

The election was in part a referendum on two of Iraq's influential personalities -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. While Maliki hopes to deepen his growing influence through election victories by his loyalists, Sadr is hoping to reverse his waning political clout by supporting independent candidates.

Many voters appeared tired of the religious parties that have dominated post-Hussein Iraq, preferring to vote for secular candidates.

The elections took place 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. Tens of thousands of Iraqis and 413 foreign observers monitored the elections for fraud and other irregularities.

In Tikrit, Hussein's home town, three mortar shells landed near polling stations, police said. There were no injuries. At least five candidates were killed in the run-up to the elections, but overall violence has been less than what U.S. commanders and Iraqi officials had expected.

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