/ 31 January 2009

Iraqis vote behind barbed wire

Iraqis voted behind barbed wire and rings of police on Saturday in an election that tested the war-battered country’s fragile security gains and which may ease lingering sectarian resentment still fuelling violence.

Iraq’s first election since 2005 will pick local councils in 14 of its 18 provinces and show whether Iraqi forces are capable of maintaining peace as US troops begin to pull back, almost six years after the invasion to unseat Saddam Hussein.

Three mortar shells landed on Saturday close to voting centres in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, but no one was hurt.

The last election took place amid an al-Qaeda-inspired Sunni insurgency and was followed by a wave of sectarian slaughter between Iraq’s once dominant Sunni Arabs and its majority Shi’ite Muslims.

A relatively peaceful and credible election will show Iraq has moved on from solving disputes with bullets, and will set the stage for a parliamentary vote late in the year, in which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will seek to renew his mandate.

Maliki is challenging dominant Shi’ite rivals in the south, tribal sheikhs who fought al-Qaeda are taking on Sunni religious parties in the west, and Arabs in the north who boycotted the last vote are looking to win a share of power from Kurds there.

”My suffering has pushed me to vote,” said electoral worker Asad Wahayab in the southern oil city of Basra, who added that after the election he would go back to being unemployed. ”We have suffered a lot and this is our chance to vote for change.”

Just under 15-million of Iraq’s 28-million people are registered to vote for provincial councils that select powerful regional governors. Three Kurdish provinces are to vote separately and the election in oil-rich, disputed Kirkuk has been put off because no one could agree on election rules.

About 14 400 candidates are competing for 440 council seats in exuberant campaigning that has been made possible by a sharp drop in violence over the past 18 months.

Layers of campaign posters decorate the blast walls that divide Iraqi neighbourhoods, and balloons bearing political messages compete in the skies with airships used by US forces to spot mortar or rocket attacks by militants.

Rings of security
Voting stations, enveloped in rings of tight security to deter suicide bomb attacks by insurgents, opened at 7am (4am GMT) and were due to close again at 5pm (2pm GMT).

Thousands of Iraqi police and troops guarded the polling centres. Cars were banned from cities to counter car bombs, airports and borders were shut and voters were being frisked for explosives-laden suicide vests and scanned for bomb residue.

”It’s my first time voting and I am really excited. I hope whoever wins paves this road,” said Jamil Kirtohamo (19) an ethnic Yazidi, as he stood next to a pothole in a dirt road in a windy desert town near the Syrian border. Police snipers crouched on the roof of a school that housed a voting centre.

In Baghdad’s giant Sadr City slum, the scene of bloody street fighting last year between black masked Shi’ite militia and government and US forces, 84-year-old housewife Fatima Lafta said her husband had told her who to vote for.

”He made the choice and I did not discuss it with him,” she said.

Five candidates have been assassinated in the run-up to the election, three of them on Thursday, and three mortar shells landed, without causing any casualties, near voting stations in Tikrit, 150km north of Baghdad, police said.

Interior Ministry spokesperson Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf said it was unrealistic to expect a perfectly violence-free day.

”We think one, two or three incidents may happen. We expect it. But this country is a newly born democracy. It’s beyond expectation that this won’t happen,” he said.

While Shi’ite versus Sunni tension has lain behind most bloodshed since the invasion, the election exposes other rifts.

In the Shi’ite south, including, Basra, Maliki’s State of Law coalition is testing its strength against the powerful Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

Maliki was once seen as weak and vacillating. But his stature has grown since he cracked down on street gangs and militias in Basra and Baghdad last year, and negotiated an end-2011 withdrawal date with Washington.

In the western province of Anbar, once the heartland of Sunni Islamist opposition to the US invaders, tribal chiefs who helped push out al-Qaeda are hoping to gain power at the expense of the traditional Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party.

The ballot may help ease violence in the northern provinces of Nineveh and Diyala, where Sunni Arabs who boycotted the last vote are seeking a share of political power.

In Mosul, the capital of Nineveh, al-Qaeda is making a stand among Arabs resentful that Kurds control the current council despite making up just a quarter of the population.

Results will be slow to emerge. It will take up to five days to get early results and perhaps a month for a final tally. – Reuters