Iraq holds first polls since US pullout as attacks rise

KEY TEST::The Iraqi PM hailed the vote as progress, despite one-third of provinces being excluded due to security concerns and attacks on candidates leaving 14 dead

Reuters and AFP, BAGHDAD

Sun, Apr 21, 2013 - Page 6

A dozen small bombs exploded and mortar rounds landed near polling centers in Iraq yesterday, wounding at least four people during voting in the country’s first provincial elections since the departure of US troops, a key test of its stability in the face of a spike in attacks that claimed more than 100 lives over the past week.

Two mortar rounds injured three voters and a policeman at a school used as a voting center in Latifiya, south of Baghdad, soon after the start of the ballot that will measure parties’ political strength before general elections next year.

Attacks have surged since the start of the year, with a local al-Qaeda wing and Sunni Islamists stepping up their campaign to undermine the Shiite-led Iraqi government and stoke confrontation among the country’s combustible sectarian and ethnic mix.

Small bombs exploded in Tuz Khurmato, Tikrit and Samarra in the north, and six more mortar rounds landed in a town near the southern city of Hilla, without causing any injuries, Iraqi police said.

The credibility of the elections has come into question, with attacks on candidates leaving 14 dead and one-third of Iraq’s provinces — all of them mainly Sunni Arab or Kurdish — not even voting due to security concerns and political disputes.

The elections for provincial councils — responsible for naming governors who lead local reconstruction, administration and finances — are seen as a key gauge of parties’ popularity ahead of general elections.

“Today is a day of change,” Salah Hussein, a 45-year-old government employee said after voting, expressing hope that Iraq’s severely lacking basic services would be addressed.

Voters were searched before being allowed to enter polling stations, and soldiers and police set up numerous new checkpoints in Baghdad.

Only pre-approved vehicles were allowed on the streets, which were largely deserted except for security forces and groups of children who took the opportunity to play soccer.

Iraqi forces were responsible for security on polling day, the first time they have been in charge without support from US or other international forces during elections since former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was toppled.

Every Iraqi who votes “is saying to the enemies of the political process that we are not going back,” Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said on state television after casting his ballot at the Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.

“I say to all those who are afraid for the future of Iraq and afraid of a return of violence and dictatorship that we will fight by casting ballots,” Maliki said.

The elections, which come a decade after US-led forces ousted Hussein, are the first since parliamentary polls in March 2010 and also the first since US troops withdrew in December 2011.

An estimated 13.8 million Iraqis are eligible to vote for more than 8,000 candidates, with 378 seats being contested.

The polls are seen as a gauge of Maliki’s popularity ahead of a general election next year, but major issues affecting voters such as poor public services and rampant corruption have largely been ignored during the campaign.