BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Quiet fell across most of Iraq on the eve of its parliamentary election on Wednesday as a draconian security lockdown and an informal ceasefire by many Sunni Arab rebels stifled all but sporadic violence.
U.S. President George W. Bush hailed indications minority Sunnis were rallying to the political process and that rebels were abandoning hardline militant groups.
In the last of four pre-election speeches defending his Iraq strategy against wide public disapproval, Bush asked Americans to be patient and vowed not to rush to withdraw U.S. troops.
"As Sunnis join the political process, Iraqi democracy becomes more inclusive and the terrorists and Saddamists become marginalised," Bush said, after a new poll showed 59 percent of voters disapproved of his handling of a war that has cost 2,150 American lives, four of them in a bomb attack on Tuesday.
The general calm was punctuated only by a few attacks concentrated in northern Iraq and by demonstrations by religious Shi'ite Muslims in several cities against a perceived insult to their spiritual leader on Al Jazeera television.
But the protests highlighted sectarian tension underlying the historic vote.
In the southern town of Nassiriya protesters burned down a campaign office for Iyad Allawi, a secular leader who has mounted a strong challenge to the ruling Shi'ite Islamist bloc.
Al Qaeda vowed on the Internet to disrupt the "'democratic' wedding of atheism and fornication" in the election and Wednesday's attacks were in the north where it is strongest.
A roadside bomb aimed at an Iraqi patrol killed a child in Samarra and another took the lives of two policemen in Mosul. A Trade Ministry employee was shot dead in Baiji, police said.
Small explosive devices damaged three empty polling stations in the restive western city of Falluja on Wednesday, police said. No one was hurt but 4,000 ballot papers were stolen.
Amid the calm imposed by a three-day traffic ban, sealed borders, a massive police presence and the closure of all shops and businesses, there was a mood of cautious optimism for an election that will complete a U.S. timetable for setting up a democratic system in Iraq.
"We know there could be bombings but we're not worried as everyone is voting," said Amin Ali Hussein, a 22-year-old soldier manning a checkpoint in Baghdad. He contrasted the poll to a vote in January when angry Sunnis boycotted and about 40 people were killed in bombings and shootings on polling day.
"There is a quiet confidence that things are going to go well," the U.N. envoy to Iraq, Ashraf Qazi, told Reuters.
In the western city of Ramadi, where anti-American Sunni rebels had promised to defend polling stations against Islamist al Qaeda fighters, gunmen patrolled some streets. As elsewhere, the 160,000 U.S. troops in the country kept mostly out of sight.
Many in the 20-percent Sunni minority, dominant until U.S. troops ousted Saddam Hussein, seem determined to vote to ensure a say in a new fully-empowered, four-year parliament.
"We won't miss this opportunity," said Ibrahim Ismail, a 30-year-old labourer in the violent northern city of Mosul, saying he would vote for one of the main Sunni Arab slates in 231 lists available to Iraq's 15 million voters.
From 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. (0400-1400 GMT), electors will walk to polling stations to vote after dipping a finger in purple ink.
For many Sunnis, the priority after the vote is to amend a constitution, drafted by the Shi'ite and Kurdish-dominated parliament and narrowly passed in an October referendum.
Bush and his Baghdad envoy Zalmay Khalilzad have repeated this week their commitment to supporting the amendment process Washington sees as an olive branch to Sunni rebels.
With Sunnis ending their boycott of the U.S.-sponsored process, turnout could reach 70 percent, up from 58 percent in January, Vice President Adel Abdel Mehdi told Reuters.
That alone is likely to deprive Mehdi's United Iraqi Alliance, the Shi'ite Islamist coalition, of its narrow majority in the 275-seat chamber.
Tarek al-Hashemi, a leader of the Iraqi Accordance Front, forecasted at least 50 seats for his Sunni party, a major improvement on the 17 Sunni Arabs in the present parliament.
Even if violence dampens voting in Sunni Arab areas, guaranteed regional seats will mean they will not be as penalised by low turnout as they were in January.
Results are likely to take many days to be announced, the Electoral Commission said, while horsetrading over a president, prime minister and government could take months.
Among favourites for premier are Mehdi and Allawi, a secular Shi'ite and tough-talking former prime minister, who is picking up Sunni votes and tacit approval from Washington.
The Interior Ministry denied a story, given to journalists overnight by police speaking anonymously, that a tanker stuffed with forged ballot papers was seized crossing in from Iran.
The January and October votes earned passing grades from U.N. monitors and major fraud is not expected.
For many Iraqis, however, the election is no quick fix.
"I don't care about anything but bringing food to my babies," said Hamed Nasser, 49, a taxi driver in the Shi'ite holy city of Kerbala. "We are fed up of promises from parties."
(Additional reporting by Ghaswan al-Jibouri in Tikrit, Nabeel Nourredeen in Mosul, Sami al-Jumaili in Kerbala and Mussab al-Khairalla, Paul Tait, Mariam Karouny, Hiba Moussa, Michael Georgy, Omar al-Ibadi, Ahmed Rasheed, Gideon Long and Luke Baker in Baghdad)
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