Iraqis eager for first polls since 2005
Reuters - 1 hour 6 minutes ago
By Peter Graff
BAGHDAD - In the years since Iraqis last brandished fingers stained with purple ink to show the world they had voted in a free election, their country has plunged deeper into, and slowly climbed out of, brutal sectarian war.
So it is with bated breath that Iraq's leaders, citizens and the U.S. officials who still have 140,000 troops stationed there are waiting for the next elections at the end of this month.
There is no shortage of enthusiasm for democracy almost six years after the U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein. More than 400 parties and groups have registered to field 14,431 candidates to contest just 440 provincial council seats.
In the weeks since campaigning began, the concrete blast walls that have become an enduring feature of Iraqi life have been quickly plastered with a bewildering array of posters.
The biggest achievement of the election may just be the fact of holding it. Western diplomats say a second cycle of elections like this one can be a more challenging milestone for a new democracy than the first.
"A single election doesn't make a democracy. A series of elections do," said U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker.
The election is an important sign that Iraq has emerged from the worst of the violence that engulfed it after the invasion in 2003 and worsened after the last election in 2005.
Just 18 months ago, when monthly death tolls from violence were up to 10 times as high as now, holding a vote might have been impossible.
Many Iraqis talk of change, and hope the election will reform regional governments that spend billions of dollars of state funds but are widely seen as corrupt, unaccountable and beholden to the interests of feuding sectarian groups.
"There is an acute impression across the board that incumbents have done badly," a senior Western diplomat said.
But the high stakes means there may also be violence in a country grown used to settling political scores with guns and bombs. So far, two candidates have been gunned down and the deputy head of a Sunni Arab party was blown up by a suicide bomber who burst into his home during a meeting with candidates.
ALTER THE LANDSCAPE
The provincial poll will set the political climate for a national election due later this year, in which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will fight to keep his mandate, shaping Iraq's future after U.S. forces are due to leave by the end of 2011.
In the south, dominated by the country's Shi'ite majority, the parties that make up Maliki's ruling coalition will be running against each other after last facing voters as a bloc.
Most southern provincial governments are controlled by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council , a religious party founded in exile in Iran during the rule of Saddam and now the strongest group in the ruling coalition. Its grip on the south is likely to hold.
But Maliki will be hoping to win an independent base of support for his own smaller Dawa Party, campaigning on promises of more services from a stronger central government.
Followers of Moqtada al-Sadr -- an anti-American Shi'ite cleric whose Mehdi Army militia controlled the streets of many southern towns until Maliki cracked down on them last year -- are keeping a low profile. They are not standing as a group, but have backed independent lists of candidates.
In Sunni Arab areas in western and central Iraq, tribal groups known as "Awakening Councils" will participate in the election for the first time. The councils helped U.S. troops drive out Sunni militants, including al Qaeda, and are now hoping to win control from traditional Sunni religious parties.
Much of the pre-election violence has taken place in the north, especially Nineveh province around Mosul, the part of Iraq where U.S. forces say combat goes on against Sunni militants making a stand after being driven from other areas.
Many Sunni Arabs boycotted the last set of polls, allowing Kurds, who make up about a quarter of the province's population, to win control of its provincial government, an imbalance that Western diplomats say has helped fuel unrest.
In the long run, the election could ease violence by drawing Sunnis into politics. But with power in the province likely to change hands, militant groups have had something to fight over.
Adjacent to Nineveh, one potentially explosive situation has been averted: in Kirkuk, an oil-producing city Kurds claim as their capital, the election has been indefinitely postponed because Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen could not agree rules for voting there.
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