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Thursday, December 15, 2005

Heavy Sunni Turnout Is Seen; Attacks Are Scattered and Light - New York Times

Heavy Sunni Turnout Is Seen; Attacks Are Scattered and Light - New York TimesDecember 15, 2005
Heavy Sunni Turnout Is Seen; Attacks Are Scattered and Light
By DEXTER FILKINS

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Dec. 15 - In a day remarkable for the absence of large-scale violence, millions of Iraqi voters, many of them dressed in their best and traveling with other family members, streamed to the polls today to cast ballots in a nationwide election as Iraqi leaders predicted that the vote would split almost evenly between secular and Islamist parties.

After the polls closed this evening, electoral commission officials said that turnout could have been as high as 11 million out of 15.5 million eligible voters, more than in October's referendum, when many Sunnis boycotted the election.

"There has been a wider participation by Sunni Arabs, so we expect the turnout to be higher," Mr. Ayar said.

The higher participation came in spite of some explosions in Baghdad and Ramadi, and sporadic reports of election irregularities, which Mr. Ayar said were being investigated.

In Washington, President Bush, along with his top aides, carefully monitored the election, which Mr. Bush has called a significant step on the road to Iraqi stability and democracy.

"This is a historic day for the Iraqi people, for the Middle East and for the world, and it's a historic day for the advance of freedom," Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said. "We are encouraged by what appears to be a large turnout."

Mr. Ayar, a spokesman for the electoral commission, said that counting would begin this evening at the polling places, but that complete, official tallies might not be known for at least two weeks because they wanted to be able to present "transparent and honest results."

Voters in the 18 Iraqi provinces were choosing among 231 parties, coalitions and candidates in selecting members for a 275-seat Parliament. The legislators will serve a four-year term, and they will approve a president and a prime minister.

As the polls opened at 7 a.m., a mortar struck the middle of the Green Zone compound in central Baghdad, the site of the American Embassy and the offices of top Iraqi officials. About the same time, a roadside bomb exploded in Ramadi. There were no immediate reports of casualties in either blast.

In Mosul, the American military said a bomb killed a hospital guard near a polling station, while a mortar round landed near another polling station in the city without causing any injuries.

But by the time the polling places closed this evening, it was clear that this had been a relatively quiet day for this war-weary nation. The voting took place calmly and vigorously in most places, aided perhaps by the fact that this was the third time in less than a year that some Iraqis were casting ballots to form a new government.

In Baghdad, families reclaimed streets that had been off-limits to them in recent months because of the frequent bombings and other violence. Several generations made their way down the middle of quiet boulevards, and children played soccer in the streets, using stones to mark their boundaries and goals.

"This election is the one we've been waiting for - it's going to determine our destiny," said Ali al-Nuaimy, 49, a physical fitness trainer, who voted in Baghdad.

In Yarmouk, a predominately Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad, Zuhiar al-Zahawi, a retired airline mechanic, was one of many Sunnis who sat out the elections in January but voted today. He said he was hopeful that Iraq's three main communities could reach an understanding. "We will talk to each other, and we will connect with each other, and we will weave the country together like a piece of cloth."

In the Adhamiya district, a stronghold of support for Iraq's ousted ruler, Saddam Hussein, voters streamed to the polls. By noontime, more than 50 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots at some polling places in this neighborhood, where Mr. Hussein made his last public appearance in 2003, standing atop a car in front of a mosque surrounded by cheering supporters just before American troops bombed the area.

In Ramadi, a violent Sunni Arab city, turnout was dramatic compared to October's referendum, when only about 2,000 people cast votes and most of those were Iraqi Army soldiers and poll workers from out of town.

"I'm so happy," said Mahmood Mohammad Hussein, 25, a student at the local agricultural college, who said he was voting for the first time in his life.

In Kirkuk, turnout in Kurdish neighborhoods also appeared to be high. The Kurds want to have as little as possible to do with the Arab part of Iraq and are struggling to maintain the state of semi-independence in the north that they have enjoyed since 1991, when the Americans established a protective no-flight zone over that region in the aftermath of the first gulf war.

Kurds want the oil-rich city included in their autonomous region of Kurdistan, a demand fiercely opposed by Arabs, many of whom were settled there by Saddam Hussein to replace Kurds and Turkmen he had expelled under a deliberate Arabization policy.

Today's election will be the last formal milestone in the American-backed political process that was devised to foster a democratic government.

They are being seen by Iraqi and American leaders as the definitive test of the Bush administration's assumption that a free vote is the best means for reconciling Iraq's vastly polarized ethnic and sectarian groups and defeating the Sunni Arab insurgency that is threatening to break the country apart.

The vote is expected to reveal a fissure of another sort, between a Shiite coalition of religious parties on one side and a mostly secular array of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties on the other.

Between them are profound differences over the direction of the country and the nature of the Iraqi state, not just over how heavily it should influenced by Islam but also over the powers of the central government and the autonomy granted to local regions. Implicit in those questions, for many Iraqis, is whether the country can survive at all.

The results of the elections are likely to determine whether and to what extent the Bush administration can begin significant withdrawals of American troops next year. American officials, including Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States ambassador here, are expected to take an assertive role helping the Iraqis put together what is likely to be a coalition government.

American commanders here have been under growing pressure to push the Iraqis into a more independent role in the governing and securing of Iraq, but they have repeatedly said in recent weeks that the critical decisions on American troop strength will be largely determined by whether the country begins to stabilize.

"This election is the one we've been waiting for - it's going to determine our destiny," said Ali al-Nuaimy, 49, a physical fitness trainer, who voted in Baghdad.

In January, elections for an interim Parliament were largely boycotted by Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, when turnout was 58 percent.

The cleric-led Shiite coalition is expected to get the largest number of votes but to fall short of capturing enough seats to enable Adel Abdul Mahdi, the group's probable nominee for prime minister, to form a government. The Shiite coalition won a slim majority in the January elections, choosing Ibrahim Jafaari as prime minister, but the expected participation of the Sunni Arabs makes it unlikely that the Shiite bloc will capture a majority this time.

The Shiite coalition, if it comes to power, is dedicated to giving the Iraqi state a decidedly Islamic cast; in southern Iraq, parties in the Shiite coalition in control of local governments have imposed strict limits on personal behavior, including those governing women's dress and the sale of alcohol.

A Shiite-dominated government is viewed with some alarm by American officials here, in part because of the Shiite leaders' close ties to the theocratic government in Iran and also for the anger it would be likely to incite among Iraq's Sunni Arabs.

Sunni Arab leaders have complained bitterly that the Shiite-led government of Mr. Jafaari has waged a campaign of persecution against them. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that the Shiite-dominated security services have engaged in widespread abductions, killings and torture of Sunni civilians.

Arrayed against the Shiite bloc is likely to be a largely secular group of parties led by Ayad Allawi, the former Baathist and secular Shiite who has attracted a large following of Sunni Arabs. Along with the Sunni Arabs, Mr. Allawi is hoping to bring in the two major Kurdish parties.

A government under the leadership of Mr. Allawi, who is regarded as the American favorite, would steer a markedly different course from one led by the Shiite coalition. The Iraqis gathered around Mr. Allawi, including the Sunni and Kurdish leaders, are largely secular, and they view Iran with great suspicion.

Yet even Mr. Allawi's coalition, if it comes together at all, is not expected to gain an absolute majority, at least not initially.

The deadlock sets the stage for a lengthy period of intense political bargaining, as the two major blocs try to secure the necessary allies to form a government. Some Iraqi political leaders predict it will take weeks, or even months, for such a government to emerge. After the January elections, under a similar system, when the Shiite coalition captured a slim majority in the interim parliament, the new government did not take power until April.

"We will need much more time to negotiate things," said Mr. Mahdi, the Shiite coalition's likely nominee as prime minister. "Instead of negotiating between two slates, as we did in January, there will be negotiations between three and even more."

Reporting for this article was contributed by John Burns from Baghdad; Ed Wong from Kirkuk;Kirk Semple, Qais Mizher and Scott Nelson from Ramadi, and Maria Newman from New York.

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