Tensions high as Iraq goes to polls in first election since US withdrawal

Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki the frontrunner to form coalition government

A woman casting her vote at a polling station in Baghdad. Iraqis headed to the polls yesterday in their first national election since US forces withdrew in 2011. Photograph: Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah

A woman casting her vote at a polling station in Baghdad. Iraqis headed to the polls yesterday in their first national election since US forces withdrew in 2011. Photograph: Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah

Thu, May 1, 2014, 01:00

Iraqis nervously cast ballots yesterday in a national election seen as a referendum on security issues that could have widespread ramifications for the unity of the region.

Yesterday’s ballot was conducted under an intensive security dragnet. It passed largely without incident, despite weeks of rising violence as the poll approached.

A more tangible test of the ballot’s success will occur in the coming weeks, or months, as leaders embark on a process of assembling a government from divided political blocs.

The election was hailed as a nation-building step more than two years after the last US forces left the country, lauding homegrown leaders as custodians of a new democracy.

Third term
The incumbent leader, Nouri al-Maliki, who is standing for a third term as prime minister, remains a frontrunner to eventually form a coalition government. He is thought highly unlikely to win a majority of seats in his own right in the 328-seat parliament, meaning difficult negotiations with rivals will inevitably follow.

As he cast his vote near Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, Maliki said: “I call upon the Iraqi people to head in large numbers to the ballot boxes to send a message of deterrence and a slap to the face of terrorism.”

Asked by reporters whether he was confident of winning a third term, he said: “Of course our expectations are high. Our victory is ensured, but we still need to determine how big this victory will be.”

In Baghdad’s Karrada district, a supporter said only Maliki could be relied on to stop Iraq from sliding towards a sectarian abyss. “Who else is there? Which other leader can step forward and say he’s going to fix this? He has consolidated power because he has to. He has had to make enemies to start to fix things.”

None of the candidates, spent much campaigning time trying to establish their governance credentials with war-weary voters. Profound deficiencies in services such as electricity and sewerage have played second fiddle to fears of a revitalised Sunni insurgency in Anbar province that spills directly into neighbouring Syria, where a war with sectarian overtones continues to rage.

Atmosphere of fear
That concern was reflected on the streets of Baghdad for much of yesterday, where most cars were banned, forcing voters to walk through abandoned streets to polling stations. Turnout was reportedly low.

At 5pm security officials allowed cars back on the capital’s streets in what was seen as an effort to boost voting numbers before polls closed at 6pm.

In Anbar, a heartland of Iraq’s Sunni population and an epicentre of regional violence, many polling stations remained closed. Those who dared to vote did so under risk of attack from the Islamic State of Iraq group (ISIS), which disavows democracy and has relentlessly targeted Maliki’s Shia-led government for the past eight years.

ISIS has also splintered the anti-Assad opposition in Syria, imposing draconian Sharia law on areas in which it holds sway and ruthlessly targeting Alawite and Shia areas.

The cross-border war has increasingly exposed the Iraqi military’s limitations; the ISIS rampage through Fallujah and Ramadi, only 60 miles west of the capital, even more so.

Despite the group’s potency, only 12 people, nationwide, were reportedly killed yesterday, among them two election officials who were hit by a roadside bomb on their way to a polling station near the northern city of Kirkuk.

In Washington, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, said Iraqis had “courageously voted”, sending “a powerful rebuke to the violent extremists who have tried to thwart the democratic process and sow discord in Iraq and throughout the region”.

Disenfranchised since the ousting of Saddam Hussein 11 years ago, which led to Iraq’s long-marginalised Shia majority taking over, Sunni Iraqis claim this election has failed to reabsorb them into the body politic, or to share power.

Sunni communities in Anbar and in some provinces south of Baghdad say Iraq’s Shia-led military makes little distinction between them and insurgents. A Maliki-led crackdown on civil protests in Anbar last December exacerbated their fears.

“What is the point of voting,” said Ali Mansour, a Ramadi resident. “All we would be doing is giving legitimacy to Maliki. He is ensuring that the country will be torn apart.”

Failure to defeat the insurgency will likely erode already fragile power-sharing deals with the country’s Kurds as well. The Kurdish north operates largely independently of Baghdad. Kurdish leaders may see crumbling state control, along with the disintegration of Syria, as an opportunity to strive for complete autonomy.

– (Guardian service)