Iraq calm ahead of landmark election


  • World
  • Thursday, 15 Dec 2005

By Alastair Macdonald and Maher Nazih

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Tough security and an informal rebel truce stifled all but sporadic violence in Iraq on Wednesday, the day before an election U.S. President George W. Bush said was drawing in Sunni Arabs and isolating insurgents. 

The general calm was punctuated only by a few attacks concentrated in northern Iraq and by protests by religious Shi'ites against a perceived insult to their spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on Al Jazeera television. 

A U.S. soldier draws his pistol at a checkpoint near a polling centre in Baghdad's Sadr city, a day before Iraq's historical parliamentary elections, December 14, 2005. (REUTERS/Ali Jasim)

In the last of four pre-election speeches defending his Iraq strategy against wide public disapproval, Bush asked Americans to be patient "until victory is achieved", saying any hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops was a recipe for disaster. 

"As Sunnis join the political process, Iraqi democracy becomes more inclusive and the terrorists and Saddamists become marginalised," Bush said. 

The Shi'ite protests across southern Iraq highlighted sectarian tension clouding Thursday's parliamentary election. 

In the 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. 

Iraq's Al Qaeda vowed on the Internet to disrupt an election it called a "'democratic' wedding of atheism and fornication". 

But the group led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi mounted none of its trademark bloody suicide bombings. 

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, police said. No one was hurt but 4,000 ballot papers were stolen. 

CALM 

Amid the calm imposed by a three-day traffic ban, sealed borders, heavy policing and closure of workplaces, some Iraqis were optimistic about a vote that will complete the U.S. timetable for setting up democratic structures 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 Jan. 30 election boycotted by angry Sunni Arabs. Insurgents killed about 40 people 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 Iraq kept mostly out of sight. 

Many in the 20-percent Sunni Arab 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 eligible voters. 

From 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. (0400-1400 GMT), Iraqis 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 this week reiterated their commitment to supporting the amendment process Washington sees as an olive branch to defuse Sunni rebellion. 

TURNOUT 

With Sunni Arabs 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 bloc, 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 tacit approval from Washington and possibly Sunni Arab votes. 

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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