Iraq’s provincial elections underway

January 31st, 2009 - 3:01 pm ICT by IANS  

Baghdad, Jan 31 (DPA) Iraqis were went to the polls Saturday in the biggest elections in the country’s history as receding violence created conditions far more secure than the last ballot in 2005.Four mortar grenades were fired at polling stations in Tikrit, the hometown of former president Saddam Hussein, but no one was hurt, the news agency Aswat al-Iraq reported.

About 14,400 candidates are contesting 440 provincial seats, creating fierce competition among candidates that was expected to lead to greater representation of the country’s sects. Sunnis who boycotted the last elections are also competing.

The elections present a major test to Iraqi forces as the administration of US President Barak Obama prepares a troop pullout plan. Only two days earlier three Sunni candidates were murdered in different places in Iraq.

In the restive Diyala province, security forces imposed a curfew a day before the elections as the Independent Higher Electoral Commission announced a halt to campaigning and the removal of all electoral banners and posters.

Iraqis will choose representatives in 14 out of Iraq’s 18 provinces. The three northern Kurdistan provinces and the long disputed Kirkuk will not go to vote.

The latter in particular has a multi-ethnic population of Kurds, Arabs and Turkman who have been clashing over control of the oil-rich province. Iraq’s central government decided to postpone the four provinces’ elections to a later date.

Apart from violence, election fraud was another threat. Far away polls in villages and rural areas might have few or no observers compared to bigger cities.

Also, many candidates have been buying peoples votes with hefty amounts, and there has been criticism of the Electoral Commission for not doing enough to control it.

To minimize the risk of terrorist attacks, police imposed driving bans in some cities. A military spokesman also said women would have to turn over their purses upon entering polling stations and mobile phones would also not be allowed.

While turnout was expected to be high, many Iraqis are not optimistic that the elections would change much.

“I don’t expect a radical change in Iraq’s current situation,” said 55-year-old civil servant Mohamed Shaker, summing up the view of many. “Powerful blocs will be ahead in the coming four years, and this matter worries us so much.”

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