Iraqis voted in record numbers yesterday in pivotal elections hailed as a key test of the sectarian landscape and a battle for power between central government and the disaffected regions.
Voter turnout was beyond expectations across the 14 provinces that took part, according to election monitors, who also reported little violence or overt signs of interference in the ballot.
The poll lead-up had been dogged by warnings that militias linked to the main political blocs would use the elections to mount a resurgence. Attacks were lower, however, than at any time during the past fortnight, with only three mortars reported falling in Tikrit, the former hometown of Saddam Hussein.
The Sunni Muslim blocs turned out en masse after boycotting the last provincial poll in January 2005 and leading a militia-driven rebellion throughout much of the past four years. Up to 60% of eligible voters turned out in the Sunni heartland of Anbar province, compared with less than 2% last time.
At a polling station in the central Iraqi city of Karbala, Sheikh Haidar Mizher said the vote had exceeded his expectations. "The election process will help to stabilise security in Iraq and enforce the law and give us a free and dignified life," he said. "Before the invasion there was no sectarianism. All groups were living together. What happened was caused by hidden hands from outside the country. We believe that things will soon be back to the way they were before the invasion."
The head of coalition party Iraqi National List, Mithal al-Alusi, last night alleged that the Iranian consul-general in the southern Iraqi city of Basra had walked through several polling stations, in a bid to interfere in the ballot. "Our monitors in Basra and other monitors as well saw the Iranian consul walk through with a fully armed convoy," he said. "This is obviously an attempt at intimidation and proves old habits have not died."
In Baghdad and Falluja, candidates claimed they had been threatened with their lives if they failed to stand down.
The prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whose State of Law coalition was banking on a solid showing in the face of a threatened rebellion from the regions over poor service delivery, said the poll was largely conducted fairly.
"Many people have seen Iraq as a dictatorship, but today that has changed," he said, casting his ballot in Baghdad. "Others are saying this is a sectarian government, but this isn't true. We can't be a dictatorship again and we won't be."
Seen throughout his leadership as a key ally of former US president George W Bush, Maliki had been widely criticised for failing to distribute spoils from an oil-led budget surplus of up to $22bn to the largely impoverished provinces.
Alaa Waheed, an engineer from Karbala, said: "We need new faces and new blood in politics. People have become more aware of elections, and this is a good experiment for democracy at a street level. Change is urgently needed because basic services are very poor. We need a new administration to change that."
The election was also seen as a clash between old-guard exiles, such as former prime minister Iyad Allawi, whose party, the Iraqi National Accord, ran candidates in most provinces, and a new breed of homegrown candidates who campaigned on nationalist and largely secular platforms. The incumbent exiles steadily lost favour as Iraq struggled with sectarian war and crippling instability.
Early results from the polls are expected within three days, but the final balance of power throughout the provinces will not be known for up to three weeks.
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