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Iraq: Voting Begins In Key Parliamentary Elections

Voting has already begun in hospitals, prisons, and barracks, as well as abroad (epa) Iraqi expatriates have already started voting in parliamentary polls that many see as a watershed event. Altogether, an estimated 4 million voters will take part in elections tomorrow to select 275 members to a new National Assembly. That body, in turn, will elect a prime minister and president. More than 200 political parties and some 7,000 candidates are in the running. Observers hope that turnout will be high and violence does not disrupt the vote -- the third time this year Iraqis have been called to cast ballots.

Prague, 14 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The elections are seen as yet another milestone in the political process of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

For the first time since Hussein’s ouster in 2003, Iraqis are set to elect not a provisional body, but a parliament with an extended mandate.

"We are talking about a four-year government and people take it more seriously now comparing to the other elections," Mustafa Alani, a regional expert at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, told RFE/RL. "They want to take it really more seriously because this will determine the fate of the country and the Iraqi society for the forthcoming years. So the value of these elections is that it will have a huge impact on the future of Iraq."

Iraq’s political landscape, poisoned by sectarianism and violence, is a complex one. The biggest and most influential group is Shi'ite Arabs. Marginalized under Hussein, the Shi'a have dominated the government elected in January in their first taste of power in modern history.

Alani told RFE/RL that the top Shi'ite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has encouraged Shi'a to vote but has not backed a specific party.

The main Shi'ite political grouping is the United Iraqi Alliance. It brings together mostly religious parties, including the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Al-Da'wah Party, and the Sadrist movement of Muqtada al-Sadr.

"I think the main objective of the Kurds is to say, 'we are a special case.’" -- Alani

Meanwhile, the Sunni Arab minority, Iraq’s longtime rulers, is not boycotting the elections, as it did at the beginning of this year. Alani said that Sunni political parties have understood that they will gain more by participation than by boycott. He said they might perform well, as they have reached a kind of understanding with moderate Iraqi resistance groups.

"I think the Sunnis now, especially [those] in the parties within the Arab Sunni camp, reached some sort of apparent understanding with the Iraqi resistance movement. Not with [Al-Qaeda leader in Iraq Mus'ab] al-Zarqawi, not with Arab mujahedin, but with the Iraqi part of the armed groups that those people are going to support the political process. I think this is major shift in Arab Sunni diplomacy. I think the Arab Sunnis’ participation will be major."

A recent website statement, purportedly by Al-Qaeda in Iraq and four other groups, branded the elections a "devilish plot" and participating in them as "anti-Islamic."

But many Sunni Arabs see their boycott of January’s elections as a mistake. Those polls only increased Shi'ite dominance in parliament -- something that Sunni Arabs hope to avoid or at least diminish by participating in tomorrow’s voting.

Iraqi Kurds, meanwhile, are hoping the elections can help them preserve their autonomy. "Their aim is to participate in the political process and to secure semi-independent entity," Alani said. "And I think the main objective of the Kurds is to say, 'we are a special case.’"

The Kurdish alliance brings together the two main factions, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), in a coalition called the Kurdistan Coalition List It is likely to sweep the Kurdish vote.

The major issue surrounding the elections is security. In the latest development yesterday, a leading Sunni Arab candidate, Mizhar al-Dulaymi, was shot while campaigning in Al-Ramadi, the capital of the restive western Al-Anbar Governorate. Dulaymi headed the independent Free Progressive Party.

Security problems should not disrupt the voting, especially when Sunnis are participating, according to David Hartwell, who follows the Middle East for the London-based organization Jane's Information Group. "You have increased Sunni participation just as you had [last October] in the referendum on the constitution," he told RFE/RL. "There seems to be a sort of fairly good air of optimism that there will be a good turnout and the violence will probably occur but maybe not on the scale that was anticipated certainly before the referendum when violence was predicted but it didn't happen."

Nonetheless, security is tight. Iraq's borders are closed and a five-day public holiday began today as a security measure for the election period. Both Iraqi and coalition forces are on alert.

Iraqi Election Poster

Iraqi Election Poster

Click on the poster for an enlarged image.

The Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission issued posters in Arabic and the two dialects of Kurdish on the allocation of National Assembly seats by governorate for the 15 December National Assembly election. The poster says, "230 seats for the governorates, as well as 45 compensatory and national seats," while the corresponding map shows the breakdown of seats by governorate.

For more background on the election, click here .

For a complete archive of RFE/RL coverage, background, and analysis of the December 15, 2005, legislative elections, click here.