BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Only scattered insurgent attacks marred Iraq””s election on Thursday as disgruntled Sunni Arabs joined the vote, determined to have more say in government.
The largely peaceful poll was a sharp contrast to Iraq””s previous Jan. 30 election for an interim assembly, when about 40 people died, many of them in nine quick-fire suicide bombings.
With fear in check, and Sunni Arabs ending a boycott of the U.S.-backed electoral process, officials reported high turnouts and only scattered complaints about irregularities.
A guard was killed and a policeman wounded by a bomb at a polling station in Mosul, one of several blasts as polls opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) in the northern city, where Sunni Arabs and Kurds are at daggers-drawn.
At the same time a mortar blast wounded three people, one of them a U.S. Marine, in Baghdad””s fortified Green Zone government and diplomatic compound, the U.S. embassy said.
A nationwide calm, imposed by a three-day traffic ban, sealed borders and heavy security, was also broken by mortars in Samarra and nearby Tikrit, Saddam Hussein””s home town.
An explosion rocked Ramadi, another bastion of Sunni revolt.
But in a remarkable turnaround from the January poll, people lined up to vote in the western city, determined to have a say in the new, fully empowered, four-year parliament. They had boycotted the first post-Saddam election.
"I””m delighted to be voting for the first time because this election will lead to the American occupation forces leaving Ramadi and Iraq," said 21-year-old Jamal Mahmoud.
In nearby Falluja, scene of the biggest battle between U.S. forces and rebels a year ago, the worst problems were a shortage of ballot papers and of vehicles to ferry the infirm to polling stations along roads closed to other traffic.
"We dont have enough cars to cope," said Electoral Commission official Najib Mahmoud. "Huge numbers of voters are waiting at stations but they don””t have enough ballot papers."
Bitter at the power exercised by an interim parliament of Shi””ite Islamists and Kurds, Sunni militants said they would defend polling stations in cities like Ramadi against groups, such as al Qaeda, who vowed to disrupt the vote.
That truce, combined with the security lockdown and 160,000 Americans keeping discreetly in the background, made for a vote that could scarcely be more different from January.
BALLOTS NOT BOMBS
"Ballot boxes are a victory of democracy over dictatorship," said Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari as he cast his vote. "The real triumph is that people are casting ballots — whoever they choose — and that they””ve chosen voting over bombs."
Around Kirkuk, where rival ethnic groups dispute control of the northern oilfields, local official Omar al-Jibouri said turnout could hit 80 percent, up from 69 percent in January.
In Baghdad, Shi””ite Hadi Mishaal, who was wounded fighting for Saddam against Americans in 1991, and who hobbled 2 km (over a mile) on a crutch to vote with his wife, said: "I hope we can have a government that will help me and give me my rights."
U.S. President George W. Bush hailed the expected turnout among Sunnis as a sign that nationalist insurgents were being drawn into a political dialogue that would marginalise diehard rebels — Baathist followers of Saddam and al Qaeda Islamists.
On the eve of the poll, nearly three years after U.S. troops invaded to oust Saddam, Bush admitted he went to war on faulty intelligence. But he said he was still right to invade and urged Americans to be patient in helping Iraqis build a democracy.
"We are in Iraq today because our goal has always been more than the removal of a brutal dictator," he said.
With opinion polls showing a majority of U.S. voters disapprove of his handling of the Iraq war, Bush is anxious to portray the election as a success for his strategy.
Underlying the vote, in which Iraqis will choose from 231 electoral lists, is the potential for sectarian violence.
In sacred Najaf, stronghold of the ruling Shi””ite Islamist Alliance””s list No. 555, 40-year-old Abdullah Abdulzahra said: "I””ll vote for 555 because they””ll kill all Baathists."
In the turbulent Sunni Arab Aadhamiya district of Baghdad, unemployed shoe salesman Ismail Dulaimi, 25, said: "This time it will be different for the Sunnis. We are voting. Now we have a government that only gives jobs to Shi””ites."
In the northern, ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, Hussein Garmiyani, dressed in traditional Kurdish clothes, smeared his own blood on the ballot, saying he was a victim of Saddam.
"These past years were all years of blood and I signed for freedom with my blood," he said.
Among Sunni Arabs, some Kurds and less religious Shi””ites, Iyad Allawi, Washington””s choice as first post-Saddam prime minister in a transitional government, appeared to be picking up votes after a ubiquitous and slick media advertising campaign.
The secular Shi””ite””s strongman image and vision of economic revival were going down well across the sectarian divide, strengthening his hope of returning to lead a coalition.
"We hope to see a formation of a strong government that can … represent the main communities and be a government of national salvation," he said after casting his vote.
Some 15 million Iraqis can vote at over 6,000 poll places.
In the south, heartland of the 60-percent Shi””ite majority oppressed under Saddam, voting was mostly smooth: "It feels like a holiday," said Lieutenant Colonel Ben Edwards after British troops patrolled around the southern city of Amara.
"There is a quiet confidence that things are going to go well," U.N. envoy to Iraq Ashraf Qazi told Reuters on the eve of a poll which the U.N. and Washington hope will serve as an example to other Middle East states moving towards democracy.
Despite voters having to walk, turnout is expected to beat January””s boycott-hit 58 percent and possibly the 64 percent seen in October””s constitutional referendum.
There are no reliable opinion polls but observers expect the Shi””ite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) share of the vote to fall, from 48 percent in January to about 40 percent. Kurds may win about 25 percent, and may be pushed for second place by Allawi.