Iraqis flock to polls in historic elections

Posted in Iraq | 16-Dec-05 | Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon Edition)

Turnout at least 67 percent as sunnis turn out to vote

Undeterred by scattered violence, Iraqis voted in overwhelming numbers in an election on Thursday, with supporters and opponents of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq hailing the elections. Turnout in 10 hours of voting was at least 10 million, or 67 percent, Election Commission chief Hussein Hindawi said, much higher than the 58 percent who voted in the previous election on January 30.

The demand to vote was so strong that polling stations were kept open an extra hour to allow those waiting in line to cast ballots. In Saddam Hussein's home province more than 80 percent of voters turned out, an electoral official said.

The largely peaceful vote was in sharp contrast to January's election for an interim assembly, when 40 people died.

Sunni Arabs mostly boycotted that poll but took part with determination and enthusiasm on Thursday, backed by nationalist rebels who vowed to protect voters.

In Fallujah turnout touched 70 percent, local officials said, and in Kurdish regions and the Shiite south it was also high.

But In Fallujah, west of Baghdad a shortage of ballot papers and of vehicles to ferry infirm voters held up voting.

There was a range of complaints about voting irregularities, and allegations flew about attempts to influence the vote in some northern cities, but overall the process went smoothly, the Electoral Commission said in Baghdad.

Polls closed shortly after 6 p.m. and counting began immediately. Definitive results are not expected for two weeks or more, the Electoral Commission said.

United Nations envoy Ashraf Qazi was pleased: "All in all it was a good day and a historic day," he said.

The U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, was also impressed. "The turnout has been dramatically higher," he said.

The White House said the election marked a "historic day."

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw similarly hailed the election as a "great" and "historic" day allowing Iraqis to look forward to a better future.

Prime Minister Tony Blair added: "It shows very clearly that, given the choice, the Iraqi people want the same as the rest of us, which is the chance to live under a democratic form of government."

The elections were also welcomed in Turkey, with the Foreign Ministry saying: "The elections will constitute an important stage in the political process in Iraq. We hope they will yield positive results for the Iraqi people."

Russia welcomed the vote and said it was "for close cooperation with the new Iraqi administration and for comprehensive assistance to the process of normalization."

"Ballot boxes are a victory of democracy over dictatorship," said Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari after voting, his finger purple with the dye that prevents double voting and is a symbol of Iraqi democracy. "They've chosen voting over bombs."

Informal polling by Reuters around the country indicated strong support in Shiite areas for the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance,

the senior partner in a ruling coalition with the Kurds.

The UIA says it has won 57 percent of the national vote for Iraq's first full-term parliament since Saddam Hussein fell.

But Allawi appeared to have made up ground from his 14 percent showing in January.

Voters interviewed as they left a polling station in a mainly Shiite area of Baghdad showed 48 percent voted for the UIA, with Allawi's list scoring 38 percent.

The Reuters poll suggested the Anbar Province vote was split between the Islamist Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front (IAF), followed closely by Saleh al-Motlag's secular Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, which has strong Baathist links.

In the other predominantly Sunni province of Salaheddine, which includes the town of Tikrit, Allawi appeared to be challenging the two Sunni lists.

From 50 voters surveyed in Tikrit, Reuters found 14 had voted for Allawi, 13 for the IAF and 12 for Motlag's list.

In the holy city of Najaf, about 90 percent had voted for the Shiite Islamists and in the city of Hilla, 70 percent of those polled also said they had chosen the UIA.

While voting went well generally, two people were killed in mortar attacks in Mosul and Tal Afar in the north and three, including a U.S. Marine, were wounded when a mortar round landed in Baghdad's Green Zone as polls opened at 7 a.m.

The interior minister said a suicide car bomber was shot dead in Baghdad and police said they arrested another east of the capital. The U.S. military separately announced that a Marine had been killed near Ramadi on Wednesday. - Reuters, AFP