Home Muslim World News Iraqis Vote As Violence Begins To Fade

Iraqis Vote As Violence Begins To Fade


An electoral worker checks ballot boxes at a counting centre in Basra, 420km southeast of Baghdad January 30, 2009. REUTERS/Atef HassanBAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqis vote on Saturday in an election that will test the war-battered country’s fragile security gains and perhaps ease lingering sectarian resentment still fuelling violence in some areas.

Iraq’s first election since 2005 will pick local councils in 14 of its 18 provinces and show whether Iraqi forces are capable of maintaining peace as U.S. troops begin to pull back, almost six years after the invasion to unseat Saddam Hussein.

The last election took place amid an al Qaeda-inspired Sunni insurgency and was followed by a wave of worsening sectarian slaughter between Iraq’s once dominant Sunni Arabs and its majority Shi’ite Muslims.

A relatively peaceful and credible election will show Iraq has moved on from solving disputes with bullets, and will set the stage for a parliamentary vote late in the year, in which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will seek to renew his mandate.

Maliki is challenging dominant Shi’ite rivals in the south, tribal sheikhs who fought al Qaeda are taking on Sunni religious parties in the west, and Arabs in the north who boycotted the last vote are looking to win a share of power from Kurds there.

“The stakes are considerable,” the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, wrote in a report.

“Whereas the January 2005 elections helped put Iraq on the path to all-out civil war, these polls could represent another, far more peaceful turning point.”

Just under 15 million of Iraq’s 28 million people have registered to vote for provincial councils that select powerful regional governors. Three Kurdish provinces are to vote separately and the election in oil-rich, disputed Kirkuk has been put off because no one could agree on election rules.

Around 14,400 candidates are competing for 440 council seats in exuberant campaigning that has been made possible by a sharp drop in violence over the past 18 months.

Layers of campaign posters decorate the blast walls that divide Iraqi neighbourhoods, and balloons bearing political messages compete in the skies with airships used by U.S. forces to spot mortar or rocket attacks by militants.


Thousands of Iraqi police and troops will guard polling centres. Cars will be banned from cities to counter car bombs and voters will be frisked for explosives-laden suicide vests.

Five candidates have been assassinated in the run-up to the election, three of them on Thursday. But car and suicide bomb attacks, many of which are attributed to remnants of al Qaeda, have been far fewer than before the last vote in 2005.

Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf said it was unrealistic to expect a perfectly violence-free day.

“We think one, two or three incidents may happen. We expect it. But this country is a newly born democracy. It’s beyond expectation that this won’t happen,” he said.

While Shi’ite versus Sunni tension has lain behind most bloodshed since the invasion, the election exposes other rifts.

In the Shi’ite south, including the main oil hub, Basra, Maliki’s State of Law coalition is testing its strength against the powerful Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

Maliki was once seen as weak and vacillating. But his stature has grown since he cracked down on street gangs and militias in Basra and Baghdad last year, and negotiated an end-2011 withdrawal date with Washington.

In the western province of Anbar, once the heartland of Sunni Islamist opposition to the U.S. invaders, tribal chiefs who helped push out al Qaeda are hoping to gain power at the expense of the traditional Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party.

The ballot may help ease violence in the northern provinces of Nineveh and Diyala, where Sunni Arabs who boycotted the last vote are seeking a share of political power.

In Mosul, the capital of Nineveh, al Qaeda is making a stand among Arabs resentful that Kurds control the current council despite making up just a quarter of the population.

Results will be slow to emerge. It will take up to five days to get early results and perhaps a month for a final tally.