Iraq on Lockdown for Key Vote

Iraqis passed through security checkpoints and razor-wire cordons to vote Saturday in provincial elections that are considered a crucial test of the nation's stability as U.S. officials consider the pace of troop withdrawals.

Polls opened shortly after dawn after a step-by-step security clampdown across the country, including traffic bans in central Baghdad and other major cities and closure of border crossings and airports. Turnout appeared brisk in many areas and officials extended polling to accommodate crowds.

There were no reports of widespread violence as voting got under way. But in Baghdad's Sadr City district, Shiite lawmaker Ghufran al-Saidi said a military officer opened fire and injured two people after voters chanted slogans at a polling station.

Iraq's military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, told Al-Arabiya television that the shooting happened after some people tried to carry mobile phones through security cordons. One person was killed and one injured, he said. The reason for the conflicting accounts was not immediately clear.

In Tikrit, about 80 miles north of Baghdad, three mortar shells exploded near a polling station but caused no casualties, said police, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.

A bomb found near a Tikrit voting center was defused, police said.

Hundreds of Iraqi Kurds stormed an election office in the disputed northern city of Khanaqin after claiming many of them were not on voting lists. There were no reports of serious injuries. The incident was part of lingering disputes between Kurds and the Arab-run central government over control of the city near the Iranian border.

Signs of the blanket security measures were everywhere. In the Baghdad neighborhood of Karradah, Iraqi police and army soldiers manned a series of checkpoints — some only 200 yards apart. Stores were closed and the streets cleared of cars.

A group of U.S. soldiers patrolled on foot but well away from polling centers. The U.S. military assisted in security preparations for the elections but said troops would only be called in on election day if needed.

In the western city of Fallujah — once a center of the Sunni insurgency — police used their patrol cars to help some people get to voting stations.

More than 14,000 candidates, including about 3,900 women, are running for 440 seats on the influential councils in all of Iraq's provinces except for the autonomous Kurdish region in the north and the province that includes oil-rich Kirkuk, where ethnic groups were unable to reach a power-sharing formula.

Voting was to cease at 5 p.m. local time (9 a.m. EST) but was extended by one hour. Preliminary results are not expected before Tuesday.

Voters headed home waved their purple-tinted index fingers, which are dipped in ink to identify people who already cast ballots. The ink-stained fingers became an iconic image of Iraq's first post-Saddam Hussein elections four years ago.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, shadowed by a bodyguard, dipped his finger into an ink box after voting in the walled Green Zone enclave in Baghdad.

He appealed for a high turnout — which would help boost his government's attempts to use the election as a sign of progress.

"This gives a picture of trust in the government, the elections and the people's right to take part in this democratic process," he said.

Although violence is sharply down — and with pre-election attacks relatively limited — authorities were unwilling to take any risks.

An election without major attacks or charges of irregularities would provide a critical boost for Iraqi authorities as the U.S. military hands over more security responsibilities. But serious bloodshed or voting chaos could steal momentum from supporters of a fast-paced withdrawal of U.S. combat troops next year.

The provincial councils have no direct sway in national affairs but carry significant authority through their ability to negotiate local business deals, allocate funds and control some regional security operations.

This election is also a possible dress rehearsal for bigger showdowns in national elections later this year, when the U.S.-allied government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could face a power challenge from the country's largest Shiite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

The security measures implemented for the election brought back memories of the most deadly years of the war. The closely monitored frontiers with Iran and Syria were among borders that were sealed. A nighttime curfew also was in place, apparently to block extremist groups that plant roadside bombs under cover of darkness.

Voters in many places passed through double-ring search cordons. Women teachers and other civilians were recruited to help search for possible female suicide bombers.

In Baqouba, the capital of the violence-wracked Diyala Province northwest of Baghdad, long lines formed.

"We were not able to vote during the 2005 elections because of the deteriorating security situation," said Ahmed Jassim, 19. "But now we feel safe enough to go out and vote."

Iraqi special forces in full combat gear patrolled streets in Baghdad's Fadhil district, which was once a hub in the Sunni insurgents' car bomb network. The tense atmosphere there contrasted with the more relaxed mood in other parts of the city.

In Baghdad's Azamiyah neighborhood — once a stronghold of support for Saddam Hussein's regime — a voting station at a girls' high school still carried a small image of Saddam, calling him the nation's "hero and martyr."

But one voter, Zaid Abdul-Karim, 44, said the elections will hopefully ease tensions between Shiites who gained power by Saddam's downfall and Sunnis who perceive themselves as sidelined since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

"These are the people we need now — people who represent everyone in Iraq and have no sectarian bias," said Abdul-Karim, a government employee.

Among Sunni groups, powerful newcomers could reshape the political hierarchy.

In Anbar province, the Sunni tribes that rose up against al-Qaida and other insurgents — and led to a turning point of the war — are now seeking to transform their fame into council seats and significantly increase their role in wider Iraqi affairs. Their gains could come at the expense of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic party in the current government.

A couple who fled to Kuwait in 2004 to escape the violence returned to their northern Baghdad neighborhood to vote Saturday. Salih Zawad Ali and his wife Zeinab looked longingly around the Sulaykh district after casting their ballots.

"I hope and pray we can come back," she said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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