BAGHDAD, (AP) – Early voting began Thursday morning in Iraq’s parliamentary election, which will decide on a government to guide the country as U.S. forces go home and help determine whether Iraq can overcome the deep sectarian problems that have divided it.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are expected to take part in early voting, a one-day session designed for those who might not be able to get to the polls Sunday, when the rest of the country votes.
Early voters include detainees, hospital patients and military and security personnel who will be working election day.
“The special voting has started and the turnout is good,” said Karim al-Tamimi, an official at the Independent High Electoral Commission. “The process is going smoothly and safely.”
The United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq estimated that between 600,000 and 700,000 people could vote Thursday. About 19 million of Iraq’s estimated 28 million people are eligible to vote in the elections, which see Iraqi expatriates cast ballots in 16 countries around the world.
These are only Iraq’s second elections for a full parliamentary term since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein, leading to the eventual creation of the Shiite-dominated government in power today.
At a high school in Baghdad’s Karrada neighborhood, police and military officials crowded in to the building to cast their ballots, then wiped the now-iconic purple ink — used to prevent people from voting twice — from their fingers.
Many expressed frustration at the government and a desire for change.
“The people who are in government, they did nothing for the country and if they return to power, they will do nothing again,” said Jolan Ali Hossein, a police officer who voted for a little-known independent candidate.
Others said they were excited about being able to vote and help usher in a new political era in Iraq.
“In the past we used to make change through violence. Now we have democracy. We are heading toward it,” said Hamza Abbas, another police officer. He declined to say who he was voting for.
Security was tight Thursday, with officials in the western province of Anbar — once the heartland of the insurgency — announcing a vehicle ban going into effect Thursday.
Around the country, hundreds of thousands of police and soldiers have been flooding the streets to prevent attacks by insurgents who have warned they would try to disrupt the vote. The Baghdad airport is slated to be closed election day.
In the city of Baqouba, suicide bombers killed at least 32 people Wednesday in a series of three bomb attacks that officials there said were intended to dissuade people from voting.