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Iraqis Begin Voting In First Election Since 2005

An Iraqi officer casts his vote in central Baghdad
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Soldiers, police, prisoners, and displaced people cast early ballots in provincial polls that will define Iraq's political landscape as U.S. forces withdraw and Iraqi forces seek to defend a fragile calm.

Polls open to the general public on January 31 in the first Iraqi elections since 2005. Since then, the country has been plunged deeper into, and slowly climbed out of, sectarian war.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who claims credit countrywide for better security but has little clout in the provinces, is aiming to win a share of regional power from larger rival Shi'ite parties. He faces a national vote later this year.

Elsewhere, Sunni Arabs who boycotted the last provincial polls are seek a bigger share of local power.

"Brothers and sisters, only hours are left separating us from this unforgettable day, election day," the prime minister told a televised election rally in the southern city of Al-Amarah.

"What makes us happy is the preparations we are seeing today -- a slap in the face of those who are betting that Iraqis will not go to the ballot boxes because they are despairing."

The January 28 special vote for soldiers and police frees them up for a massive security operation during the main election on January 28, when vehicles will be banned from the streets.

Major General Abd al-Amir Ridha Muhammad, an army commander in Kirkuk, held up a finger dyed with purple ink that proved he had voted. "This day is a victory for all Iraqis," he said.

In one reported glitch, military spokesman Colonel Abbas Tamimi said a unit of at least 800 troops in Al-Basrah was not able to vote because of problems with paperwork.

Two small bombs killed a policeman and wounded three civilians in the volatile northern city of Mosul, where the vote is expected to see Arabs win local power from Kurds.

"The turnout was excellent.... The process went smoothly," Faraj al-Haidari, head of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission, told Reuters after polls closed. Major General Qasim al-Musawi, security spokesman for Baghdad, said, "the process ended with great success, without any security breach."

Test As U.S. Withdraws

Holding a successful election is an important test of the ability of Iraqi troops to keep the peace as 140,000 U.S. troops begin to leave. U.S. President Barack Obama wants to speed up the pace of withdrawal after his predecessor George W. Bush promised to pull out the troops by the end of 2011.

Iraqis have embraced the campaign enthusiastically. Some 14,400 candidates, including nearly 4,000 women, have registered to contest 440 provincial council seats. Campaign posters are plastered all over the concrete blast walls that have sprung up throughout the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Mobile phones countrywide have been beeping in unison for days as parties send out mass text messages seeking support.

Tens of thousands of displaced people were also registered to vote early, a fraction of the up to four million Iraqis believed to have fled their homes during years of fighting.

"I don't know who to vote for but a sheikh wrote this number on my hand and I will vote for this number," said one inmate in an orange jumpsuit voting at Al-Basrah's Ma'qal prison, where guards beat several journalists for photographing inmates' faces.

The election campaign so far has not seen a surge in attacks. At least two candidates were assassinated, but overall violence has remained at among the lowest levels of the war.

Once seen as a weak leader, the prime minister strengthened his hand over the past year after cracking down on militias and winning the U.S. commitment to withdraw within three years. But al-Maliki still has only a limited power base in the provinces.

"Al-Maliki has given us security and given us in the police and the army some respect in society," said policeman Muhammad Khalaf Salih, queuing at a primary school in Al-Basrah where police piled their pistols on a table outside before going in to vote.

Al-Maliki's Shi'ite rivals, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, control nearly all southern provinces and could tighten their grip. Another potent Shi'ite group, followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, are on the back foot after al-Maliki's troops and U.S. air power defeated their militia last year.

In the volatile north, U.S. officials hope the vote can ease violence by bringing once-hostile Sunni Arabs into politics.

The outcome will not be clear soon. Preliminary counts will take days and the final tally weeks. It could take weeks more for councils to meet, form coalitions, and pick new governors.