Iraq on high alert for election day violence
AFP - Saturday, January 31
BAGHDAD (AFP) - - Iraq on Friday prepared for its first election since 2005 with security forces on high alert for polling day violence as US President Barack Obama called the vote a "significant milestone."
The run-up to Saturday's poll had been relatively free of trouble but the shooting of election contenders in Baghdad and in the cities of Baquba and Mosul, north of the capital, on Thursday night exposed the threat that such attacks could throw voting into chaos.
The elections -- being held in 14 of the country's 18 provinces -- are seen as a key test of Iraq's steadily improving stability, as Obama looks to redeploy American troops to Afghanistan.
Iraqi and US military commanders have in recent days warned that Al-Qaeda poses a threat to the elections.
Campaigning for the vote officially ended at 7:00 am (0400 GMT) on Friday and Iraq's borders were closed at 10:00 pm. Transport bans and night-time curfews were also implement as part of stepped up security measures.
The White House said on Friday that President Obama will watch the results of the elections, which he sees as a "significant milestone" in Iraq's fledgling democracy.
"Obviously the president will watch the results, and believes that the provincial elections this weekend mark another significant milestone in Iraq's democratic development," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Saturday's vote is expected to see Sunni Arabs turn out in force in a reversal of the January 2005 parliamentary elections and is also being seen as a quasi referendum on the leadership of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
The Shiite Muslim premier has been striding out as an increasingly strong figure on the political stage as he has presented a secular national agenda in response to the sectarianism that has long gripped Iraq.
Although Maliki is not standing, he has thrown his support behind a list of candidates that make up the State of Law Coalition.
Four years ago Iraq's Sunni Arabs boycotted the legislative election, allowing Shiite and Kurdish parties to take control of parliament, but Sunnis are now expected to cast their ballot in large numbers.
A cleric in the holy Shiite city of Najaf urged worshippers attending weekly Friday prayers to vote.
"We appeal to the people; Sunnis, Shiites, Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen to participate in the elections. Tomorrow Iraq will witness great elections," said prayer leader Sadr al-Din al-Qubanchi.
Thursday's killings, however, highlighted the risk that sectarian hatred poses to voting day.
The first murder occurred in Baghdad, where armed men opened fire on Omar Faruq al-Ani, a candidate for the Iraqi Concord Front, the main Sunni group in the country's parliament, police and army officials told AFP.
The second victim, Hazim Salim Ahmed, a Sunni standing for the Iraqi National Unity list, was shot dead outside his home in the northern city of Mosul, considered the last urban stronghold of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Also on Thursday evening, a third candidate from a mixed Sunni, Kurd and Shiite party, was killed along with two campaign workers as they put up election posters in Mandali, near the central city of Baquba.
Iraq's provincial councils are responsible for nominating the governors who lead the administration, and oversee finance and reconstruction projects. They control a combined budget of 2.4 billion dollars. Security forces remain under federal government control.
The United Nations and Iraq's Independent High Election Commission are organising the elections, with 800 international observers expected to oversee the balloting.
The vote will not include the three autonomous Kurdish provinces -- Arbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniyah, all in the north.
Elections have also been postponed in the oil-rich Kirkuk province, which the Kurds want to incorporate despite fierce opposition by the central government.
Gibbs said that Obama over the past ten days has met with military advisers, the defense secretary, top military chiefs and commanders to discuss the outlook for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I think the Pentagon said this, and it's true, that we expect that we'll have recommendations and decisions on moving forward on Iraq quite soon," the White House spokesman added.
As a presidential candidate, Obama called for a 16-month timetable for the withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq.
Recommend this article
Average (0 votes)
Sign in to recommend this article »
Most Recommended Stories »
A US soldier, from Bravo troop 5-1 Cavalry, takes part in a patrol to check security measures for the upcoming provincial elections in the eastern town of Khanaqin, near the border with Iran.
Most Popular – Top Stories
US House approves massive economic stimulus bill
Soldier suicides hit record in 2008: US Army
Financial crisis bringing global economy to standstill: IMF
Wen and Putin lash out at US over economic crisis
Boeing to cut 10,000 jobs after loss
View Complete List »