Explosions kill 16 people on Iraq election day


Explosions killed 16 people as Iraqis voted on Sunday in an election that Sunni Islamist militants have vowed to disrupt, in one of many challenges to efforts to stabilise Iraq before U.S. troops leave. Mortar rounds and bombs exploded in Baghdad and mainly Sunni towns elsewhere, timed to mark the start of Iraq’s second vote for a full-term parliament since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Twelve people died in a blast at a residential building in Baghdad, an Interior Ministry source said. Four people were killed when another apartment block was blown up in the capital.

Iraq’s political course will be decisive for President Barack Obama’s plans to halve U.S. troop levels over the next five months and withdraw entirely by end-2011. It will also be watched closely by energy companies that have committed themselves to investing billions in Iraq’s vast oilfields.

Voters in the ethnically and religiously divided country can pick between mainly Shi’ite Islamist parties that have dominated Iraq since Saddam Hussein’s fall and their secular rivals.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, urged all parties to accept the election results. “He who wins today may lose tomorrow, and he who loses today may win tomorrow,” he said after casting his ballot in the fortified Green Zone enclave.

One of Maliki’s opponents, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, has already complained of irregularities in early voting. Allawi’s secular list is tapping into exasperation with years of conflict, poor public services and corruption, and hoping to gain support from the once dominant Sunni minority.

About 6,200 candidates from 86 factions are vying for 325 parliamentary seats. No bloc is expected to win a majority, and it may take months to form a government, risking a vacuum that armed groups such as Iraq’s al Qaeda offshoot might exploit.

Few elections in the Middle East have been as competitive as this one. Its conduct could determine how democracy in Iraq affects a region used to kings and presidents-for-life.

“Today is the day when Iraqis speak while others keep silent,” declared Ammar al-Hakim, Shi’ite leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), after voting.

Maliki, whose State of Law coalition is claiming credit for improved security since sectarian warfare peaked in 2006-07, faces a challenge from ISCI and his other former Shi’ite allies, derided by Sunni militants as pawns of neighbouring Iran.

In contrast to the previous election in 2005, Iraqis can vote for individual candidates this time, not just party lists.

“Democracy in Iraq is chaotic. Everyone lies,” said Abdul Rasheed al-Tamimi, a day labourer in the Shi’ite city of Najaf.

“The only reason I’m voting is because it’s an open list and I know the candidate personally. I can hold him to account if he breaks his promises,” he said.

‘LAST CHANCE TO CHANGE REALITY’

In Kirkuk, a city disputed by Kurds and Arabs, Bushra Qassim said she was voting to secure a better future for Iraq.

“This election is the last chance for Iraqis to change the reality in which they live so as not to repeat the terrorism that I and many other Iraqis suffered from,” the 40-year-old said, her face deeply scarred from a 2008 car bombing that killed one of her sons and wounded her and three other sons.

Some of Maliki’s rivals allege intimidation and arrests, adding to tensions created by a ban on 400 candidates accused of links to Saddam’s outlawed Baath party — a furore which exposed the lingering divide between Sunnis and Shi’ites.

“We need to see the will of the Iraqi people fully exercised in this coming election. Otherwise, Iraq will be thrown back to severe violence,” Allawi said as he concluded his campaign.

In Anbar province, a Sunni bastion, tribal sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha said Sunnis were hoping the poll would make them feel they had a real stake in their now Shi’ite-dominated country.

“Change is our goal. We want to put fresh blood in the political process,” said Abu Risha, leader of the so-called Awakening Councils which helped the U.S. military push back a raging al Qaeda-inspired Sunni insurgency.

The Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaeda affiliate, has warned Iraqis not to vote and vowed to attack those who defy them.

Violence killed around 50 people in the days before the election, including four Iranian pilgrims killed by a car bomb on Saturday in Najaf, home to Iraq’s holiest Shi’ite shrine.

Troops and police were out in force across Iraq’s 18 provinces, banning vehicle movement to try and foil car bombers.

The 96,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq stayed in the background, underscoring the waning American role in Iraq.

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