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Iraq Vote Praised But Many Details Unclear

Women preparing to vote yesterday in Al-Najaf Prague, 31 January 2005 -- As the world welcomes the success of the Iraq election, many details of the voting remain unclear, including just how many voters actually participated.

Under intense media and public pressure to give some idea of the turnout, Iraq's Independent Election Commission first announced late yesterday that 72 percent of Iraq's eligible voters had cast their ballots. Almost immediately afterward, the commission revised the figure downward to 60 percent.

A turnout of 60 percent would mean that 9 million of the some 14 million Iraqis who are of voting age went to the polls.

But within hours, commission officials retracted the turnout figures, calling them "very rough, word-of-mouth estimates gathered informally from the field." The commission also suggested the estimates could be exaggerated due to what it called "the enormous and understandable enthusiasm felt in the field on this historic day."

Breaking Down The Vote

Joost Hiltermann is a regional expert with the International Crisis Group based in Amman. He says that it may be days yet before firm turnout figures are actually known.

"It's completely premature now to make any predictions. We don't really have any good sense of the turnout except that many people seem to have voted enthusiastically, and that is a fantastic thing, of course. But the critical question, which is not just the level of the turnout but the composition of the turnout, remains to be answered," Hiltermann says.

The election commission said today that it will have final results within a week.

Of particular importance is the turnout in Sunni-populated areas of central and north-central Iraq, where insurgents have been most active in recent months. Some Sunni religious and community leaders had urged a boycott of the poll, citing security problems and fears that the poll could hand power to the majority Shi'a at the Sunnis' expense.

Hiltermann says that so far, the picture of voting in the Sunni areas appears mixed.

"It may be in certain areas the Sunni Arab vote was higher than we expected, but our expectations were very low to begin with. But in some areas the Sunni Arabs don't seem to have voted at all. But these are all impressions and we really need to get very good objective data on this before we can draw any firm conclusions," Hiltermann says.

In the heart of the so-called Sunni triangle, a total of just 300 ballots were cast in the town of Al-Ramadi, many of them by police officers and soldiers. But in some villages around Al-Ramadi, election workers reported there were so many voters that they ran out of ballots.

In the north-central city of Mosul, where insurgents drove police off the streets in November 2004, some polling stations had long lines of voters while others remained largely empty.

In Shi'a-populated southern Iraq and in the Kurdish-administered areas of northern Iraq, polling officials reported large numbers of voters.

In the run-up to yesterday's vote, community leaders in both regions had repeatedly called on people to come out to vote for the National Assembly. The National Assembly will choose Iraq's next interim government and oversee the writing of the country's first post-Hussein constitution.

One man arriving at a crowded polling center in Baghdad appeared to sum up the sentiments of many voters. He told reporters nothing could deter him from voting.

"I would like to be one of the first people to show up at the polling station to break the fear for people who are scared to vote. This is a new experience. In the past, we could only vote for one person. Now we have a choice. And God willing, the winning candidate will not disappoint us," the man said.

Tightened Security

By the time the polls closed yesterday, insurgent attacks had killed at least 40 people, including voters and Iraqi security officers. But the attacks were small-scale operations using mortars or suicide bombers wearing vests of explosives. They did not include any of the kinds of massive truck or car bombs that have characterized the deadliest insurgent attacks of the past.

It remains uncertain why the insurgents appeared unable to launch attacks on a spectacular scale -- as many observers had feared they were planning. But the limited scope of the attacks could reflect a general tightening of security in restive areas of Iraq ahead of the election. These included U.S. sweeps in central Iraq to round up insurgent suspects, closure of Iraq's borders, and a temporary ban on travel between Iraq's provinces.

During the voting, security was stepped up further to include a ban on traffic around polling stations and the mass deployment of Iraqi security forces. More than 17,000 Iraqi troops, some with tanks, were positioned around Baghdad alone.

In the wake of the vote, some U.S. commanders praised the performance of the Iraqi security forces as a key element in discouraging attacks. U.S. and other foreign forces in Iraq stayed out of sight of polling places yesterday but near enough to help Iraqi forces if necessary.

For news, background, and analysis on Iraq's historic 30 January elections, see RFE/RL's webpage "Iraq Votes 2005."

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