BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraqis held their most peaceful election since the fall of Saddam Hussein on Saturday, voting for provincial councils without a single major attack reported anywhere in the country.
“The purple fingers have returned to build Iraq,” Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in a televised address after the polls closed, referring to the indelible ink stains on index fingers that show voters have cast their ballots.
The 2005 election took place amid an al Qaeda-inspired Sunni insurgency and was followed by a surge in sectarian slaughter between once dominant Sunni Arabs and majority Shi’ite Muslims. That violence has dropped dramatically since 2007.
Defence Ministry spokesman Major General Mohammed al-Askary said of Saturday’s vote: “No security breaches took place during the election. Things went as we planned and as we hoped.” “I consider it a great success, like a wedding.”
Iraqi forces are determined to show they can keep security in the country as U.S. troops begin to withdraw almost six years after the invasion to overthrow Saddam.
Maliki, who claims credit for improving security, aims to use the election to build a power base in the provinces before national polls later this year. Sunni Arab groups who boycotted the last provincial polls hope to win a share of local power. There was something of a holiday atmosphere in many parts of the country. In normally traffic-choked Baghdad, children took advantage of a ban on cars to play soccer in the streets.
“How can we not vote? All of us here have always complained about being oppressed and not having a leader who represented us. Now is our chance,” said Basra voter Abdul Hussein Nuri.
In the only reported incidents countrywide, mortar rounds landed in former dictator Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit but no one was hurt, and Iraqi troops shot one person dead and wounded another after a quarrel in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum.
U.S. forces killed two Iraqi police officers during a raid in Mosul in early morning before polls opened. The circumstances were not fully explained.
In addition, five candidates were assassinated in the run-up to Saturday’s election — three just two days before the vote. “Those who want to pull down the electoral process as a whole have just not been able to get off the ground. That … is a very positive sign,” said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the University of London.
The 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq had patrols on the streets and helicopters in the sky but mostly kept a low profile. A U.S. armoured column was seen weaving down a Baghdad street between children and rocks placed in the road as makeshift soccer goals.
“So far, so good. The significance? Historic,” U.N. Special Representative Staffan de Mistura told Reuters at a polling station in a Baghdad school. “We have seen quite a flux of participants … The rules have been applied quite strictly. I’ve also been seeing quite a good organisational system.”
Still, there were glitches. Thousands of people failed to find their names on voter registration lists and could not vote.
One of them was elderly Fadhel al-Shimary, who had walked three km (two miles) to vote in Baghdad’s Palestine Street, stopping every 50 metres to rest in a chair carried by his son. “I will wait here until the night. I must vote before I die,” he said. “Maybe they are trying to steal my vote. But I will not allow it. I am still alive. I am not dead yet.”
Just under 15 million of Iraq’s 28 million people were registered to vote for provincial councils that select powerful regional governors in 14 out of Iraq’s 18 provinces.
Three Kurdish provinces will vote separately, and the election was indefinitely postponed in the divided northern city of Kirkuk, a potential flashpoint, to avoid a showdown between Kurds and Arabs vying for control there.
Around 14,400 candidates competed for 440 council seats after exuberant campaigning. Brightly coloured campaign posters cover the blast walls that divide Iraqi neighbourhoods.
Maliki, once seen as a weak leader installed by more powerful Shi’ite parties, has seen his stature rise over the past year after a crackdown on militias. He has toured the country in recent weeks campaigning with a law-and-order theme, and there were signs he had won support in once hostile areas. “He made it possible for us to go out at night. Now I can take a taxi ride home when I go shopping in the city centre,” said teacher Sadiha Karim, who voted for Maliki’s slate in Sadr City, a Baghdad slum where U.S.-backed Iraqi forces drove out black-masked militiamen in heavy fighting last year.