In Iraq, a day of votes, violence

On March 7, 2010, millions of Iraqis voted to elect lawmakers who will rule the country for years as U.S. forces withdraw. The election was marred by dozens of attacks that killed nearly 40 people and underscored the security problems the incoming government will face.
By Ernesto Londoño and Leila Fadel
Monday, March 8, 2010

BASRA, IRAQ -- On a day that began with the thundering explosion of insurgent mortar rounds and ended with outbursts of celebratory gunfire by hopeful political activists, millions of Iraqis voted Sunday to elect lawmakers who will rule this country for years as U.S. forces withdraw.

Voter turnout appeared to be modest, as many Iraqis chose to stay home out of fear and a sense that democracy has brought them more misery than blessings.

Still, many voters said they went to the polls despite their disdain for Iraq's political establishment and their deep apprehension about the future of a vibrant democracy saddled by the weakness of its institutions.

Like past Iraqi elections, Sunday's vote will almost certainly be followed by fierce and protracted jockeying as coalitions recalibrate alliances and wrangle over top jobs. The process is expected to drag on for months, with political fights potentially spilling back into the streets and deepening sectarian and ethnic divides as Iraqis enter an era in which the United States will be increasingly powerless to shape events.

"It's certainly possible that the losers will not accept their defeat," said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert at the International Crisis Group. Results are not expected for a day or more.

U.S. officials hailed the vote as a milestone that they hope will allow a smooth reduction of their country's footprint this summer. U.S. troops invaded Iraq in March 2003.

"I have great respect for the millions of Iraqis who refused to be deterred by acts of violence, and who exercised their right to vote today," President Obama said Sunday afternoon. "Their participation demonstrates that the Iraqi people have chosen to shape their future through the political process."

Obama reiterated his commitment to withdraw the remaining U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of August. He added that the roughly 50,000 peacekeeping troops remaining should be withdrawn by the end of 2011. Currently, there are fewer than 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

Obama warned that continued violence in Iraq is probable in the coming weeks and months, but he praised Iraqi security forces for showing greater capability to manage those problems.

In a reminder of the threat, dozens of explosions ripped through the Iraqi capital and other cities Sunday morning, killing at least 38 people and wounding 89. The deadliest attack occurred just after 7 a.m. in the eastern Baghdad district of Ur, where booby-trapped rooms collapsed two residential buildings, trapping families inside and killing at least 25 people.

Two men rented rooms in the residences and detonated the explosives remotely as voters were going to nearby polls, Iraqi security officials and emergency workers at the scene said. As the polls were closing at 5 p.m., rescue workers were still pulling bodies from debris, including that of a baby found in a crib.

The attacks discouraged some from voting, but invigorated others.

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