(RFE/RL) -- Iraqis are resting and enjoying a warm and sunny holiday today in much of the country as they await official results of the March 7 parliamentary ballot -- Iraq's second national elections since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime seven years ago.
With government offices closed along with many businesses today, traffic on the streets of Baghdad has been light. But Laith Ahmad, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq, says the conversations in many neighborhoods of the capital are dominated by one topic -- speculation about what the eventual election results will be, "and whether their lives will change with the new government and the new parties who will win."
Preliminary results are not expected to be announced before March 11.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's bid to win a second term for his State of Law alliance on a platform of providing services and security is being challenged by his former Shi'ite partners and a cross-sectarian, secularist group headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
Maliki's party said it was on course to win in Baghdad and the Shi'ite south of the country, but that claim has not been officially verified.
Ahmad says Iraq's political parties have not yet started any kind of negotiations on the formation of parliamentary alliances to support the next government, preferring instead to wait for the final official results, even though they may have "some information about the results" through observers at polling stations.
Election officials count votes at a polling station in the central city of Karbala.
The election was a test for Iraq's young democracy and will help determine whether the country can avoid relapsing into secular violence as U.S. forces prepare to withdraw by the end of 2011.
U.S. President Barack Obama hailed the courage of the millions of Iraqis who turned out to vote, despite election-day violence that claimed the lives of nearly 40 people in Baghdad and other cities. The election commission today put turnout at 62 percent -- compared to the nearly 70 percent recorded in the previous national vote in 2005.Iraqis Demand Security, Rebuilding
Baghdad resident Saad Abtan said today that he is happy so many people defied the threat of violence and turned out in large numbers to cast their ballots.
"Thank God that despite the bombings and rocket attacks, Iraqis went to the polling stations and challenged the rockets and explosions," Abtan told Reuters. "I call on the new government to meet the promises the candidates made. We want security and reconstruction."
Another Baghdad resident, a man named Muhammad, urged the eventual winners to keep their promises to boost reconstruction, security, and employment. "All candidates made promises of reconstruction and news jobs," he said. "I hope to see that happening."
Kurds in the northern city of Kirkuk have expressed their satisfaction by dancing in the streets and waving flags from their cars. "The election this year is better than the previous years. Thank God, the election was clean and quiet," one Kurd said. "According to news and expectations, Iyad Allawi is the new prime minister, he was the first winner. As for me, I gave my vote to the Kurdistan Coalition."
In the southern city of Basra, voters today also appeared to be satisfied with the election process -- despite unconfirmed reports that there may have been some electoral irregularities there.
"The election was good and honest and the situation at the polling centers was very good," resident Abdullah Hussein said. "You were free to vote for the candidates you wanted. The election commission employee gave out the ballots and allowed voters to pick the slate they wanted. I went with my wife and voted for the State of Law coalition. I voted with my free will and walked out."
Iraqi Kurds read the headlines at a newsstand in the northern city of Irbil.
Basra resident Muhammad Bani also said his experience at the polling station had been a positive one. "Nobody dictated the list to me," he said. "We want the one who will help us get rid of this bad situation. We hope that the people whom we elect will offer services to these tired people."Western Praise
Obama welcomed what he called "strong turnout," saying the vote made it clear that the future of Iraq belongs to the people of Iraq.
"By any measure, this was an important milestone in Iraqi history," Obama said. "Dozens of parties and coalitions fielded thousands of parliamentary candidates; men and women. Ballots were cast at some 50,000 voting booths. And, in a strong turnout, millions of Iraqis exercised their right to vote with enthusiasm and optimism."
Obama also described the courage of Iraqis during ballot as "a step forward" for the hard work of rebuilding their country. "The United States will continue to help them in that effort as we responsible end this war and support the Iraqi people as they take control of their future," he added.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also congratulated the Iraqi government and people on the elections.
Rasmussen said that "regardless of the attempts of violent extremists, these elections represent yet another crucial achievement for the development of a full democratic Iraq."
Rasmussen also predicted that the elections would contribute in a significant way to the process of national reconciliation and help political progress toward the stability of Iraq.RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq contributed to this report. With agency reports