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8 Mar, 2010 08:10

Violence threat persists as Iraqis await election results

Vote counting is underway in Iraq in the second parliamentary election since the US-led invasion began in March 2003. But the day's been marred by a series of bloody attacks which have left at least 38 dead.

A curfew was imposed in Baghdad to ensure the safe transportation of ballots after a deadly string of bombings hit Baghdad on Sunday, as voters took to the polls.

“The voting went ahead amid rocket strikes from Katyusha multiple-rocket launchers, which greatly affected voter turnout. But in the afternoon, people went to the voting booths,” says political analyst Adil Al-Saedi. “The people of Iraq want change and are voting for it. Today, everybody is participating unlike at the last election, which was simply boycotted by some Iraqis. Those who boycotted the last election now convince people to vote.”

Nearly 20 million people are eligible to vote in Iraq, and with estimates putting voter turnout at more than 60 per cent, the government is declaring the election a success.

Promises for US troops to pull out soon is the main reason for such a high election turn-out, Vitaly Naumkin from the Institute of Oriental Studies explained.

“There are hopes Iraq will be free of any foreign troops’ presence in Iraqi territory and no significant intervention. The second reason is that everybody is tired of violence and exhausted of killings of innocent civilians,” Naumkin said. “I think it’s the determination of Iraqi people to be responsible for their own country and they are ready for that.”

Preliminary exit polls show that incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is leading in Shiite areas, and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi – in Sunni ones. Information from Baghdad is not yet available, and official results are expected in late March.

International observers have been positive from the outset.

“Our delegation agrees that the elections are going very well, and everything is well organized. We are especially well impressed with the number of voters we have had this morning,” said Moris Lorwa, observer from the UN Assistance Mission of Iraq.

Throughout the day, Iraqi voters could be seen with their fingers dipped in ink, a sign that they had braved the dangers to make it to the polls, while the international community views this election as a true test of democracy.

Iraq has been plagued with sectarian problems for years, with clashes between the Shiites, Sunnis, the Kurdish north and even Christian groups all fighting for their input into the country’s future. Many hope this election will be the cure to sectarian violence, but there are fears there’ll be little change.

The sectarian divide is increasing, according to Sabah al-Mukhtar, president of the Arab Lawyers Association.

“Most of the people who are voting now, are voting on sectarian grounds because in fact there's no choice between the various candidates whether they are parties, groups or alliances. None of them have a political programme.”

The week leading up to Sunday’s poll has been particularly bloody. Despite heightened security, dozens have been killed and hundreds wounded in bombings around the cities of Baghdad and Baqouba, 30 miles north-east of the capital.

On Saturday, on the eve of Iraq’s parliamentary election, a car bomb exploded in the Shiite city of Najaf, claiming the lives of at least three people, including two Iranians, AP reported.

More than 6,000 candidates are competing for over 325 seats in parliament, with 25 percent of them set to be filled by women. The dominant party will be able to select candidates to run for president and prime minister.

But officials have warned that the transition to the new government could take some time – possibly drawing out the election process longer than anyone would want.

After years of insecurity, the citizens of Iraq seem desperate for a change, and this election is seen as a key milestone in the national reconciliation process.

“I came here from Mosul because I haven’t any work,” says one passerby in Erbil who agrees to an interview. “In my city we have suffered from inhumane conditions, especially the lack of security. I hope that our leaders will do everything to reduce unemployment and we hope they will work to develop the country.”

Despite the violence, the Iraqi authorities are also planning to hold a three-day voting session in 16 different countries for Iraqis living abroad.

Unification sounds promising but will be a tall order since Iraq’s population is very diverse, ranging from Sunni and Shiite Muslims, to Christians and Kurds, as well as a variety of secular organizations.

Iraq’s third largest city, Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region, has been plastered with countless flags and banners of political propaganda. The people there are hoping that a representative from Erbil’s Kurdish Parliament will have a strong voice among the many politicians across the country.

“For our people this election is the manifestation of our destiny,” says one female resident of Erbil. “Especially to fill the grand vacuum between Baghdad and Erbil, I hope there will be a good representative from Kurdistan who goes to parliament to resolve the great number of problems between the two cities.”

Although authorities claim the situation in the country is under control, many are not so sure.

“The situation today is extremely bad. Before, it was beyond people to actually leave their front doors. Now they can, which means there is some kind of progress. I think that if you go anywhere throughout Iraq you’ll find that the situation is far worse,” says Anas Altikriti, president of Cordoba Foundation, who works to improve understanding between Islam and the West.

Adil Dagher, a political analyst from Baghdad, says that the government pays a lot of attention to security and it often manages to keep the situation under control.

“That's one of its greatest achievements. We're laying great expectations for the election and would like to hope there will be no violations,” Dagher told RT. “Considering the tough situation, it's hard to tell whether the government will manage to do it or not. Al Qaeda and other militant groups have claimed on the Internet they are planning terrorist acts to sabotage the election. The Iraqi government will take the necessary steps to provide security to prevent, or at least reduce, the possibility of terror attacks.”

Many have called the elections a test to democracy, but Sabah al-Mukhtar believes that the notion is unjustified and has been imposed by the west.

In a democracy, you can only have elections if there is a rule of law, there is a government in control. That is just not the situation in Iraq,” al-Mukhtar says. “This is not the time to have elections. You cannot have elections when there are at least 100 violent actions every single day in Iraq, regardless of whether it is an American bombing, or the army, or the terrorists…”