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In Iraq, a day of votes, violence

By Ernesto Londoño and Leila Fadel
Monday, March 8, 2010; A01

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 He added that the roughly 50,000 peacekeeping troops remaining should be withdrawn by the end of 2011.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.

"I didn't care about this election, but when I saw this I went to vote," said Raed Waleed, who helped pull the injured from the rubble. "I want to change the faces of the people who are responsible for all the problems in this country."

Attacks were also reported in Fallujah, a city west of the capital, and in Diyala province, north of Baghdad.

Sunni insurgents had threatened to derail the vote. They saw the election as an affirmation of Shiite rule.

Election commission officials declined on Sunday night to provide voter-turnout figures. They acknowledged that turnout was light during the morning, but said it picked up in the afternoon as the explosions stopped.

Official results are expected to be released in a day or two. Representatives from two leading slates of candidates predicted victories.

"From Baghdad to Basra, we are the first," said lawmaker Sami al-Askari, who is running with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law slate.

Supporters of Maliki drove around the southern city of Najaf, singing and hoisting placards of their candidate.

In Baghdad, hundreds of supporters of former prime minister Ayad Allawi, another front-runner for the country's top job, gathered at his house to congratulate him for what they described as a strong showing.

A person close to the campaign, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Allawi camp anticipates getting at least 110 seats, based on exit polls. The next parliament will have 325 lawmakers. Most analysts predict no coalition will earn a decisive victory.

On Sunday evening, Allawi accused the electoral commission and competing political parties of possible fraud. He warned that if breaches are not investigated, the next parliament would have to examine the electoral commission's conduct.

"The government couldn't fulfill its promises to provide the security and safety. Because of that, Iraqi blood was shed today," Allawi said in a news conference. "It is definite that wide and serious breaches happened."

Tensions were high at many polling sites where thousands of would-be voters could not find their names on the rolls -- a chronic problem in past elections.

Raad Ibrahim, 29, left his home in Adhamiyah, a mostly Sunni district of Baghdad, at 8:30 a.m. and searched in vain for his name in nearby polling stations.

"I just want to vote," he said at 2 p.m., looking exasperated. "This is my constitutional right. Why did they take it from me?"

In Basra, some men argued with a poll station chief after they, too, could not find their names on the rolls.

"In the whole Iraqi state, no one is in charge," Ryad Abed Abdullah, 47, said, looking ruffled in a brown suit. "So we don't even have someone to blame."

U.S. military officials said they were happy with their early assessment of turnout and were relieved the violence was not worse.

"All in all, it's a good day for the Iraqis and all of us," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said.

U.S. military officials in Baghdad played down the violence, calling death tolls provided by Iraqi police "exaggerated." Maj. Gen. Steven Lanza, a spokesman, said many of the explosions were caused by "small water-bottle" bombs that make a lot of noise but cause no damage. Iraqi police officials said they investigated at least 20 incidents in which people were killed or wounded.

Although Maliki appeared to do well according to early reports and interviews, many voters said they hoped to bring in new faces to a parliament infamous for bickering and stalled legislation.

"I'm not optimistic," said Anwar Shajer Hamid, 50, a polling station worker in Basra who voted for a Sunni list in the predominately Shiite city. "This government's performance has been very bad. Everyone is looking out for their own interests."

Despite the day's grim start, many Iraqis said they cast votes hoping they would usher in something better. Many here still call democracy an "American experiment."

At a school in the vast Shiite slum of Sadr City in eastern Baghdad, men and women lined up against a concrete wall protecting the polling station.

Inside, Silik Audy, 76, sat down waiting for her nephew.

Y'ummah, she whispered in fear after three successive explosions. The term means "Oh, mother." But she stayed put.

"This is our right," she said. "We came to take it."

Her son, Salem Malah, was killed by the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia that once controlled the streets.

His name is still on the voter rolls, and the family brought his identification card, planning to cast a vote on his behalf.

"He died for Maliki," said Malah's widow, Hayat Jiaz.

Relatives began to sob as they walked toward the registration table.

"We'll vote for Maliki," Jiaz, 38, said. "We want our right: security for the people."

Fadel reported from Baghdad. Special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf, Uthman al-Mokhtar in Fallujah, K.I. Ibrahim and Qais Mizher in Baghdad, and Aziz Alwan in Basra, and staff writers Michael A. Fletcher and R. Jeffrey Smith in Washington and Greg Jaffe, traveling with Gates, contributed to this report.

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