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Vote-Counting Under Way In Iraq

A Shi'ite Muslim sheikh collects a ballot in Al-Najaf.

A Shi'ite Muslim sheikh collects a ballot in Al-Najaf.

BAGHDAD/PRAGUE (RFE/RL) -- Vote-counting is under way in Iraq following provincial elections that have been praised for their relative peacefulness.

The January 31 voting was extended for one hour due to reported heavy turnout. Initial results and voter turnout figures are expected to start emerging in the coming days.

The elections were held without major violence, but reports say observers are examining some complaints, including allegations that thousands of people's names may have been wrongly omitted from voting lists.

The elections, to fill 440 seats on 14 provincial councils, are widely viewed as a key indicator of stability and political trends ahead of general elections later this year.

But the elections are also significant in their own right, as the new councils will wield more power than those elected in 2005, when boycotts by minority Sunnis and by some pockets of disgruntled Shi'a significantly affected the results.

Electoral authorities announced late in the afternoon that polling places would be kept open an extra hour to allow more people to vote, citing the satisfactory security situation. Up to 15 million Iraqis were eligible to cast ballots.

Iraqis extend ink-stained fingers after voting in the southern city of Al-Najaf.
After voting in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki hailed what he said appeared to be a strong turnout and called on his compatriots to vote in large numbers.

Rings of police and other security forces were guarding polling stations and searching would-be voters to ward off possible violence. Iraqis also shut off their international borders, and vehicle bans were in place across major cities.

No one was injured in what was believed to be the only notable security breach, when mortars exploded near a polling station in Tikrit, the hometown of late ruler Saddam Hussein.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq correspondent Adel Mahmoud described the mood amid voting in the capital as "very optimistic," and even "festive," among residents and voters. He noted that the sunny weather could boost turnout figures.

"No security breaches took place during the election. Things went as we planned and as we hoped," Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Muhammad al-Askary said after polls closed, according to Reuters. "I consider it a great success, like a wedding."

Some eager would-be voters have complained that they turned up at polling stations only to discover that their names were not on voter-registration lists.

Security precautions were conspicuous throughout the country.
The president of the Iraqi Election Commission, Faraj al-Haideri, told Radio Free Iraq that authorities had urged residents to call on their neighborhood polling stations two or three days ahead of the polling to confirm their presence on voter lists.

But one Baghdad resident told Radio Free Iraq that he was left out of the process despite having checked beforehand.

"I came to cast my vote at the polling center [and] I was told my name is not on the register," the man said. "I came to the polling center at the school on the opposite side of the street, [and] my name is there on the wall."

It was unclear how widespread the problem was, but the Baghdad man claimed he knew at least "four or five families who also have their names missing."

A senior election official told Radio Free Iraq on election day that about 700 members of international observer teams were in Iraq for the voting, and another 59,000-60,000 local UN observers. The official said at least 475,000 other representatives of domestic political groups were participating in the observation process.

Results of the elections, which included more than 1,400 candidates, are expected to start emerging next week.

Iraqi national lawmakers last year gave provincial councils more power, including the right to pick and dismiss provincial governors, approve budgets, block senior police appointments, and take greater initiative in reconstruction and community projects.

In addition to filling the provincial councils and signaling support among political blocs, these elections will set the stage for parliamentary polls at the end of this year.

The provinces not holding elections are the three that make up the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north -- which has its own election schedule -- plus the neighboring oil-rich province of Tamim.

contributions from RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq and RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague