BAGHDAD (AFP) – Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the Shiite leader who helped ease Iraq’s deadly sectarian conflict, emerged Monday as a front-runner after an election seen as a test of the nation’s young democracy.
The key estimates from the Baghdad region, which could swing the results of Sunday’s poll, were not yet available but local officials said Maliki’s political bloc was so far leading in nine of Iraq’s 18 provinces.
Millions voted, braving rocket, mortar and bomb attacks that killed 38 people to cast their ballots in the second parliamentary election since US-led forces ousted now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
US President Barack Obama, who has promised to withdraw all US troops from Iraq by the end of next year, paid tribute to “the courage and resilience of the Iraqi people who once again defied threats to advance their democracy.” Related article: Iraqis vote ‘without fear’
Maliki’s State of Law Alliance was ahead in Shiite regions while Iyad Allawi, an ex-premier who heads the Iraqiya list, was leading in Sunni areas, said unofficial estimates AFP obtained from officials across the country.
Official final results are not due until the end of March and, after that, it is likely to take months of horsetrading before a new government is formed as no political bloc is set to emerge dominant from the vote.
But early indications were looking good for Maliki.
He was appointed prime minister in 2005 as a compromise candidate and his administration, with considerable help from the US military, sharply reduced the Sunni-Shiite sectarian strife that killed tens of thousands.
Maliki played down his party’s Shiite religious roots in his campaign for this election and sought to portray himself as the leader who restored security to Iraq, a claim dented by a series of bombings in Baghdad in recent days.
One analyst, however, said that even if Maliki’s list was triumphant, his unpopularity among Iraq’s many political parties could prevent him from remaining prime minister.
“His relations with the Kurds, who play a key role in he parliament, are not good,” said Hamid Fadel, a political scientist at Baghdad university. Related article: Kurds vote timidly for change
“The Iraq National Alliance accuses him of concentrating power in his own office and the Sunnis accuse him of launching a ‘de-Baathification’ process aimed at them,” he told AFP.
Maliki’s main challenger, according to the initial estimates, is Allawi, whose Iraqiya is a mostly Shiite slate that has campaigned on a nationalist and non-sectarian ticket.
The other leading list is the Iraq National Alliance, which is dominated by two Shiite religious parties, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and the movement loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who led two armed uprisings against US-led troops.
It also includes former deputy prime minister Ahmed Chalabi, the man whose faulty intelligence on weapons of mass destruction encouraged the United States to invade Iraq.
Sunday’s vote saw Sunnis return to the ballot box in large numbers, in stark contrast to their 2005 boycott in protest at the rise to power of the long-oppressed Shiite majority.
Turnout across the country was estimated by election commission officials at more than 60 percent, which showed that most Iraqis were undeterred by an Al-Qaeda threat to kill people who dared to vote.
Turnout was strongest, at more than 70 percent, in Arbil in the autonomous Kurdish region in the north, and in the disputed oil province of Kirkuk, which is at the centre of a battle for control between Arabs and Kurds. Factfile: Iraq
Baghdad bore the brunt of Sunday’s violence, with around 70 mortar rounds raining down on mostly Sunni areas.
The cities of Fallujah, Baquba, Samarra and several other areas were also hit by mortar rounds or bombs, many of them exploding near polling stations.
Twenty-five of the dead died when a rocket flattened a residential building in the north of the capital, and all the other deaths were in or near the city.
A total of 110 people were wounded in the attacks, which came despite the deployment of 200,000 police and soldiers in Baghdad and hundreds of thousands more across the country. Related article: Key dates since US-lead invasion