Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iraqis are heading to the polls today, Wednesday, April 30, amid a deteriorating security situation and allegations of voter fraud, and as embattled Shi’ite prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki faces electoral challenges from across Iraq’s sectarian divides.
There was a series of escalating terrorist attacks in Iraq in the run up to the polls, with reports that Baghdad has deployed tens of thousands of soldiers across the country to beef up security ahead of and during today’s poll.
A string of attacks were reported on security checkpoints and polling stations across the country on Monday, killing more than 20 people, while on Tuesday a pair of bombs ripped through an outdoor market in Baghdad, killing at least 17 people and wounding 42, according to officials.
The Iraqi security forces’ Baghdad Operations Command announced that it would be doubling security in the capital following the attacks earlier this week, as well as setting up roadblocks and patrols in order to restrict the movement of armed groups and prevent the targeting of polling stations. Iraqi airports will also be closed while the poll is held, according to officials.
In a statement issued on Tuesday, Iraq’s Interior Minister said that his ministry had taken “comprehensive measures” to ensure security during the elections. He also called on all Iraqis to “actively participate in the election process,” describing voting as a “national duty.” He also stressed that voting would “take place across the country, including Al-Anbar province.”
Anbar province, which runs from Baghdad west to the Syrian border, has been the scene of violent confrontations between government troops backed by local tribal militias and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is backed by rival tribal militias. ISIS has been able to establish a presence in a number of major towns in the province, including Fallujah and Ramadi, with the ongoing conflict casting a pall over the elections.
In these legislative elections, Maliki is facing a major challenge from Parliamentary Speaker Osama Al-Nujaifi and his Sunni-led Mutahidoun Coalition, who accuse him of seeking to exploit ongoing unrest across the country to strengthen his grip on power and secure a third term in office. Maliki is also facing criticism from his traditional Shi’ite allies, particularly the followers of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) led by Ammar Al-Hakim.
A number of fatwas have been issued by Shi’ite leaders in the run up to elections with the objective of unifying the divided Shi’ite vote. Earlier this week, Grand Ayatollah Bashir Al-Nujaifi—viewed as one of the four most senior ayatollahs in Iraq—issued a fatwa prohibiting the election of Nuri Al-Maliki, which has the potential to seriously affect his chances of re-election.
Earlier this month, Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Kazem Al-Haeri issued a fatwa banning the election of any “secular” candidates, while another Grand Ayatollah—Hussein Ismail Al-Sadr—subsequently criticized the move, saying that candidates are only required to possess “patriotism, integrity and competence,” regardless of their religious beliefs.
“Religious [identity] should not be a condition for election,” he said.
Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, increasingly appeared to be turning against the idea of Maliki’s re-election earlier this month, meeting with Sadrist Movement leader Moqtada Al-Sadr, who has been particularly critical of his former ally.
Sadr, who announced his retirement from politics in February, described Maliki earlier this year as a “tyrant” who heads a “corrupt” government.
A joint statement issued by representatives of Sadr and Sistani said: “Sistani and Sadr condemned sectarianism and terrorism and stressed the importance of confronting corruption and putting the higher national interest ahead of personal interests, and to preserve national unity.”
Most analysts do not believe that any single party or coalition will be able to win an outright victory in this week’s poll, meaning that the next prime minister will be decided by post-election politicking.