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Amid threats and tight security, Iraqis head to polls

Three killed by explosions in Baghdad

A car bomb targeted Shi'ite pilgrims in the holy city of Najaf yesterday, killing at least three people and wounding more than 50. Though overall violence is down, insurgents have threatened voters in the run-up to today's parliamentary elections. A car bomb targeted Shi'ite pilgrims in the holy city of Najaf yesterday, killing at least three people and wounding more than 50. Though overall violence is down, insurgents have threatened voters in the run-up to today's parliamentary elections. (Ali Abu Shish/ Reuters)
By Hamza Hendawi and Qassem Abdul-Zahra
Associated Press / March 7, 2010

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BAGHDAD - Under a blanket of tight security designed to thwart insurgent attacks, Iraqis went to the polls today in an election testing the ability of the country’s still-fragile democracy to move forward amid uncertainty over a looming US troop drawdown and still jagged sectarian divisions.

Almost 20 million voters are eligible to turn out for the election, only the second vote for a full term of Parliament since the 2003 US-led invasion seven years ago this month. About 6,200 candidates are competing for 325 seats in the new Parliament.

Insurgents have vowed to disrupt the elections with violence, but security was very tight across the capital, where only select authorized vehicles were allowed on the streets and voters headed to the ballot box on foot. The borders have been sealed, the airport closed, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi military and police were on the streets.

Still, at least three explosions could be heard in the early morning hours and three people were confirmed dead in northeastern Baghdad.

At one polling place in Baghdad’s Karradah neighborhood, draconian security measures were in place with the school ringed by barbed wire, armed guards around the perimeter, and police using metal detectors to scan prospective voters.

The election has been viewed by many as a crossroads at which Iraq will decide whether to adhere to the sectarian politics - Shi’ites aligning with Shi’ites, Sunnis with Sunnis and Kurds with Kurds - that have defined its short democratic history. Or move away from the sectarian tensions that almost destroyed this Shi’ite-majority country that was held down under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-minority rule.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is fighting for his political future against a coalition led by mainly Shi’ite religious groups - the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and a party headed by anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. He also faces a challenge from secular alliance led by former a secular Shi’ite, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who has teamed up with a number of Sunnis in a bid to claim the government.

President Jalal Talabani was among the first to vote this morning in the Kurdish city of Sulamaniyah. Talabani’s party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, is enmeshed in a tight race with an upstart political party called Change that is challenging the two Kurdish parties who have dominated Iraqi politics for years.

None of the main political coalitions is expected to win an outright majority, which could mean months of negotiations and more violence.

The United States, which has lost more than 4,300 troops in the nearly seven-year conflict, has fewer than 100,000 troops in the country and their presence on the streets has all but vanished. The monthly American death toll has plummeted.

Overall violence is down dramatically, although attacks continue and insurgents have threatened voters.

A car bomb targeted pilgrims in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf yesterday, killing at least three people, including two Iranians, and wounding more than 50, officials said.

The vibrant political campaigning has seen large-scale rallies, town-hall style meetings, and campaign posters and television ads that blanket the city and the airwaves, reflecting the high stakes involved.

Maliki heads the State of Law Coalition, a largely Shi’ite group that presents itself as nonsectarian but is dominated by the religious Dawa party. Maliki has risen to popularity as violence has diminished but his image has been tarnished by the government’s inability to stop large-scale bombings in Baghdad or provide basic services like electricity.

Sectarianism is still the dominant force in Iraqi politics. A Shi’ite-led ban that knocked out hundreds of candidates angered Sunnis. The leader of the ban - former Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi - is a candidate himself and proudly describes himself as “the destroyer of Ba’ath idols’’ in his campaign posters.

But there are signs - albeit small - that Iraqis are thinking beyond the strictly sectarian lines that have defined them. The major coalitions have paid at least lip service to including members of other Muslim faiths, a contrast to the 2005 vote.

Many observers have predicted it could take months for rival factions to form a new government. The bloc with the most votes will be able to nominate a prime minister but is probably going to need support from others to gain a majority due to the fractured nature of Iraqi politics.