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Iraqis Vote Amid Struggle Between Shi'ite Leaders Aligned With Iran


Iraqis Vote In First Parliamentary Elections Since Defeat Of IS
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Iraqis took to the polls on May 12 to vote in the country's first parliamentary elections since Baghdad declared victory over Islamic State (IS) militants and routed the extremist group from most Iraqi territory last year.

The electoral commission said preliminary figures showed turnout was 44.52 percent, far short of the 60 percent recorded in previous elections and a record low since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Some 22.5 million people were eligible to vote.

Official results were expected to be announced on May 13 or 14.
Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, a Shi'a who has sought to balance the competing influences of Washington and Tehran, was marginally ahead in opinion polls ahead of the vote.

"With the help of God, the general voting process took place in all provinces of Iraq today, and the Iraqi people were able to cast their votes to select their representatives freely and safely," Abadi said on Twitter.

"The provinces liberated from [Islamic State] saw the holding of free voting for the first time after the big victory over and defeat of [Islamic State]," he added.

Abadi's Victory Alliance list got a big boost in the polls from public approval of his proclaimed victory in December over IS, which at one point in 2014 occupied one-third of Iraq's territory.

Polls show Abadi also won approval for forcefully putting a stop to a bid by Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region to declare independence last year. But he lacks charisma and has been blamed for failing to improve the economy.

Abadi also cannot rely solely on votes from the Shi'ite community to win another term in office, as Iraq's majority Shi'a are unusually split this year between three rival candidates.

Making up for the lack of united backing from Shi'a, polls show Abadi has drawn an unusual level of support in the northern city of Mosul and other areas dominated by Sunnis who were liberated from IS.

Abadi's two main challengers, also Shi'as, are his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki and Iranian-backed Shi'ite militia commander Hadi al-Amiri. Both rivals are seen as closer to Tehran than Abadi.

When he was prime minister, critics say Maliki's pro-Shi'a policies created a polarized atmosphere that enabled IS to gain sympathy among Sunnis as it swept across northern and western Iraq in 2014.

In his comeback attempt, Maliki is promising to strengthen the role of Shi'a in Iraq's government once again.

His rival Amiri spent more than two decades fighting Saddam Hussein from exile in Iran and speaks fluent Farsi.

Amiri leads the Badr Organization, which was the backbone of the volunteer forces that helped to defeat IS along with Iraqi government troops and U.S.-backed Western coalition forces.

Amiri hopes to capitalize on his battlefield successes. Victory for Amiri would be seen as a big a win for Iran, which has sought to increase its influence in Iraq and the wider region.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on May 12 congratulated Iraqis on the election, saying that "citizens from every ethnic and religious group, and from all 18 provinces, including those internally displaced, made their voices heard.

"The newly elected members of parliament will have the important task of forming an inclusive government, responsive to the needs of all Iraqis," Pompeo said in a statement.

"We hope this process moves quickly, and on the constitutional timeline, so that Iraq can continue moving toward a more secure, prosperous, and brighter future," he added.

After the fall of Saddam in 2003, decades of dominance by his Sunni-led Baath party came to an end and senior government positions were unofficially split between Iraq's three main ethnic and religious groupings.

The post of prime minister was reserved for a Shi'a, the parliamentary speaker is Sunni, and the ceremonial presidency has gone to a Kurd. All three posts are chosen by parliament.

In the elections, nearly 7,000 candidates, including 2,011 women, are vying for seats in the 329-member parliament.

The splits among the country's Shi'ite factions make it unlikely for a single party to secure enough seats to form a government on its own.

Iraqi authorities have tightened security for the election, amid fears of attacks by IS remnants. Last month, IS threatened to attack Iraq's polling stations, saying any participant in the vote would be targeted.

Cells thought to be linked to the radical group have mounted scattered attacks across Iraq since Abadi in December declared the recapture of all territory seized by the extremists.

With reporting by AFP, dpa, The Washington Post, AP, and Reuters
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