Iraq locks down for election


  • World
  • Wednesday, 14 Dec 2005

By Alastair Macdonald

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq was largely calm on Wednesday on the eve of its parliamentary election with a stringent security crackdown preventing all but sporadic violence. 

Traffic was banned, borders sealed and shops and businesses closed as most voters stayed close to home. 

An election campaign banner hangs over a nearly empty road in central Baghdad December 14, 2005, a day before Iraq's historical parliamentary elections. (REUTERS/Ceerwan Aziz)

Violence, subdued by Iraq's standards, was concentrated in the north. 

A roadside bomb aimed at an Iraqi security patrol killed a child in Samarra, police said, a Trade Ministry employee was shot dead in the oil refining town of Baiji, and a roadside bomb in Mosul killed two policemen and wounded three. 

Four U.S. soldiers were killed by a bomb near Baghdad and a leading Sunni candidate was shot dead on Tuesday. 

Al Qaeda has vowed to disrupt the vote but other Sunni Arab insurgents are backing candidates and say they will defend polling stations, aiming for a say in a government that will be in power for up to four years. 

The vote marks the formal end of a U.S. timetable for establishing democratic structures after its 2003 invasion. 

The head of the electoral commission in ousted president Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit threatened to walk out with his team, complaining Iraqi soldiers tried to force their way into his offices on Tuesday before being fired on by his guards. 

Tempers calmed later, however, and he returned to work. 

Police and Interior Ministry officials called journalists overnight to say a tanker truck stuffed with forged ballot papers was seized crossing the frontier from Iran. But both the chief of Iraq's border guards and Interior Minister Bayan Jabor denied the report. 

Jabor said it was an attempt to discredit the election, in which sectarian and ethnic tension is running high. 

Allegations of clandestine Iranian support for fellow Shi'ite Islamists leading the interim government are commonplace among secular rivals and Saddam's fellow minority Sunni Arabs. 

Allegations of abuses, including fraud and intimidation, have multiplied during a vibrant and vigorous campaign, marked by mass-media advertising, that has drawn in rebellious Sunnis who boycotted the vote for an interim parliament in January. 

But that election and a constitutional referendum in October did earn passing grades from U.N. vote monitors and fraud is not expected on a wide scale, despite grumbling among minorities, particularly Sunni leaders. 

BOMB ATTACKS 

The relative calm and the expected big turnout among Sunnis are likely to be hailed loudly as successes in Washington, where a new poll found 59 percent of Americans disapproved of President George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq war. 

Bush will give the last in a series of four speeches on Iraq later in the day and is expected again to stress the long-term commitment the United States must make to the country. 

"On the eve of a historic election, the president believes it is an important time to take stock of where we are in Iraq, why we are there, why it is important, what the stakes are and why we will achieve victory," his spokesman said. 

The first votes were cast on Monday in hospitals, barracks and prisons. On Tuesday up to 2 million Iraqis living abroad began three-days of voting. 

More than 15 million Iraqis are registered to vote. 

After nearly three years of U.S. occupation, the new 275-seat parliament will have full powers. 

With 231 lists running in the election, any government is almost certain to be a coalition. The Shi'ite Islamist Alliance is expected to be the biggest bloc, albeit with less than the slim absolute majority it holds at present. 

Its success has partly been due to its association with Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. His office issued a non-partisan call for a big turnout on Wednesday but previous calls for the faithful to back religious parties may bolster the Alliance at the expense of secular leaders. 

Among these is Iyad Allawi, the first post-Saddam prime minister. Privately, Western diplomats have played up the secular Shi'ite's credentials to lead the country again as a compromise candidate with support across sectarian lines. 

(Additional reporting by Ghaswan al-Jibouri in Tikrit and Mussab al-Khairalla, Paul Tait, Hiba Moussa and Luke Baker in Baghdad) 

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