By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 9, 2010; A05
BAGHDAD -- Iraqi officials announced Monday that 62 percent of registered voters cast ballots in Sunday's parliamentary elections, a total slightly lower than in the 2005 national elections but higher than in last year's provincial elections.
There was stronger-than-expected turnout in predominantly Sunni provinces, suggesting that a minority group that lost power with the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and tried to regain it with a years-long insurgency now sees the democratic process as a potential way to regain influence as the U.S. draws down.
That represents a marked change in attitude from 2005, when Sunni parties boycotted the vote as a protest of the U.S. occupation. Salahuddin province, a mostly Sunni province, had a turnout of 73 percent. In Anbar province, once a bastion of the Sunni insurgency, 61 percent of voters went to the polls.
The Kurdish north, predictably, had the highest turnout. More than 75 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the autonomous region, which includes three provinces.
Turnout in Baghdad, the capital, was among the lowest nationwide, at 53 percent, due at least partly to attacks Sunday morning that left 38 people dead.
No official results were expected until later in the week. Analysts said it was unlikely that any single political coalition would gain a decisive victory.
The months to come are expected to be politically precarious, as rivals forge new alliances and battle for seats in the next government. The process has the potential to further polarize sectarian and ethnic divides while Iraq's first sovereign government forms and the U.S. military reduces its presence.
On Monday, Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, called the elections a milestone that would allow the United States to draw down to 50,000 troops by Sept. 1.
"Unless there's a catastrophic event, we don't see that changing," Odierno said. "We believe we're right on track for that."
At the moment, there are about 96,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
U.S. officials played down violence on Sunday, calling reports of mortar attacks across the capital untrue. Odierno said most of the blasts were bottles packed with explosives that were hidden in heaps of trash. Iraqi police said that of 100 attacks, 20 wounded or killed people.
U.S. Ambassador Christopher R. Hill said losers in the vote must accept their defeat.
"At some point, there will be a winner declared and there will be losers declared," Hill said. "That's when all Iraqis, including Iraqi political elites, need to accept the process and move on."
On Sunday night, both the State of Law coalition, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the secular Iraqiya list, led by Ayad Allawi, predicted victory.
Special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.