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Iraq's first foray into democratic elections in 54 years has been hailed as the first step in the transformation of the country.
Iraq's modern history has been a tumultuous one: it has seen a monarchy toppled, numerous coups, dictatorships, and three wars in the past 25 years. The election stands as an achievement for the Iraqi people, who stood in the face of terrorist threats to cast their ballots. Election officials said on 30 January that 5,171 polling centers out of 5,230 opened on election day. Makeshift polling centers were also reportedly opened outside areas of resistance to help facilitate voting, officials said.
Although official figures are still not available, election officials on 30 January estimated that 72 percent of voters that had registered to vote cast their ballots. That number was later scaled down with Independent Electoral Commission head Adil al-Lami telling RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on 31 January, "The percentage was a rough estimate. I think in all elections in any country of the world the turnout will not equal the original number of voters. It cannot go higher than 70 percent. If we get 40, 30, 50 or 55 percent, this will be a very good turnout." In Sunni areas, such as Ba'qubah and Al-Fallujah, the media estimates that the turnout was around 30 percent – low by international standards, but given the threats of insurgents in these Sunni-dominated areas, the turnout is being interpreted as a success. Iraqis interviewed at polling centers across the country expressed their joy and determination to vote.
The efforts of the Iraqi police and National Guard to secure polling centers is an extraordinary achievement. In Mosul, three thousand policemen abandoned their posts in November when insurgents attempted to gain control over areas of the city (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 5 and 15 November 2004). In December, 700 election workers resigned en masse (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 5 January 2005). The city's police chief was fired and replaced in early January, tasked with the enormous challenge of preparing Iraq's third most-populated city for elections. In the end, turnout appears to have been moderate, and violence was curbed.
Still, reports indicate that at some polling centers in the governorate did not open when election workers failed to come to work. Al-Sharqiyah television questioned electoral commission spokesman Farid Ayar about comments attributed to Deputy Governor Khasraw Goran in which he said that four polling centers failed to open after they did not receive election materials. "This did not happen. We have distributed all the supplies, forms, and ballot boxes based on a tight plan to all areas. I do not know how [Goran] said this. We are certain that our work was good, although there is a possibility for human error. Any person might make a mistake. However, this did not happen," Ayar contended. Goran escaped an assassination attempt in Mosul on 30 January in an attack that wounded two of his guards, Kurdistan Satellite television reported.
Voter turnout appeared strong in the Kurdish-dominated western side of Mosul. Turnout was lower on the city's eastern, Sunni-dominated bank of the Tigris River, nytimes.com reported on 30 January. U.S. Army Major Anthony Cruz told the website that about 60 percent of polling centers had turned in results by 6 p.m., indicating that at least 53,000 ballots had been cast. One polling center in a Sunni neighborhood visited by a washingtonpost.com reporter had not had one voter save 15 Iraqi soldiers on duty there some three hours into the voting period, the website reported on 31 January. Another polling center in the Sunni-area of the city reported only 60 ballots being cast there, despite a plea issued by Iraqi security forces over a nearby mosque's loudspeaker calling on citizens to come out and vote.
Major General John Batiste, who commands the Army's 1st Infantry Division responsible for security in the governorates of Diyala, Salah Al-Din, Al-Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk (Ta'mim), told nytimes.com that the "ineffective attacks" of insurgents hampered fewer than 3 percent of the 951 polling centers in four governorates in north-central Iraq.
In Kirkuk, where tensions between Kurds and Turkomans have increased in recent days, the vote was said to have gone smoothly. Najem al-Rubay'i, spokesman for an independent observer group called Ain, told AFP there were attacks that he described as "minor" against one polling center. "But the operation continued normally," he said. A Kurdistan Satellite Television reporter accused members of the Iraqi Turkoman Front, which is supported by Ankara, of "trying to create problems and instability at polling stations" by "alleging" there were irregularities regarding their list.
Despite the apparent calm in Kirkuk, Turkish officials criticized the vote on 31 January. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told turkishdailynews.com in an interview posted on 31 January that there was a real threat of civil war breaking out in Kirkuk, claiming that his country has been cautious in its approach to the issue by issuing clear warnings to Kurdish and American leaders about its concerns. His remarks prompted the Iraqi ambassador to Turkey, Sabah Osman, to say: "I understand the concerns of the Turkish government. The information they receive [on Kirkuk] is exaggerated, however," NTV reported on 31 January. Osman added that he did not expect a civil war to break out in Kirkuk.
Turkoman Front officials in Ankara complained on 31 January that their list's logo was excluded from the expatriate ballot, Anatolia news agency reported. Ahmet Muratli attributed the error to the International Organization for Migration, which was responsible for organizing the expat vote, saying the absence of the logo "is not a simple mistake and it cannot be passed over lightly with a single apology. This is an intentional behavior against the ITC [Iraqi Turkoman Front] and the ITC believes that it was perpetrated upon the direction of the [ethnic] Kurdish foreign minister of Iraq," he added, in an apparent reference to interim Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari.
In Al-Najaf, Tawfiq Abbas al-Bidari said that his party, Free Republic, had registered to participate in the governorate's election, only to find that it was not on the ballot on 30 January, Radio Free Iraq reported on the same day. Al-Bidari called for a new election in the governorate. Meanwhile, other local election lists complained that Governor Adnan al-Zurufi's list violated the electoral commission regulation banning campaigning 48 hours before the polls opened. RFI reported on 29 January that al-Zurufi had continued campaigning, even sending police to hand out posters for his list.