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Sunnis Join Millions at Iraq Polls

Times Staff Writer

Iraqis across ethnic and sectarian divides voted in droves Thursday in a high-stakes election that could determine the course of the nation and the outcome of the U.S. effort to promote Western-style democracy in the Middle East.

In the cities of Baghdad, Mosul and Basra, and in the mountainous Kurdish north, the marshy Shiite south and the arid Sunni Arab west, voters sensed the day’s gravity and packed polling places to cast ballots for a full-term 275-seat legislature.

“May God protect Iraq and Iraqis,” voters in the Sunni Muslim city of Fallouja chanted as trays of rice and meat were carried into the election center, compliments of a local sheik with tribal ties to the insurgency.

The steady stream of voters in Fallouja marked a major turnabout. Little more than a year ago, the city was a fierce battleground pitting U.S. Marines against insurgents. And in January, residents boycotted the first post-invasion election for an interim parliament. On Thursday, polling places in the city ran out of ballots.

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Election officials estimated that between 10 million and 11 million of Iraq’s 15.5 million registered voters turned out, equaling or exceeding the number for the constitutional referendum two months ago.

With a strong Iraqi security presence, violence was relatively low compared with the country’s daily litany of bloodshed.

The election, the third nationwide vote in 11 months, will decide the composition of the legislature that will form a four-year government, the country’s first permanent administration since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled President Saddam Hussein.

The results of the balloting will determine how much and how quickly Iraq will move toward a federal system with several semiautonomous regions after decades under Hussein’s dictatorial Sunni-dominated central government, how much it will adopt Islamic principles after decades of secular rule, and whether it will move closer toward Shiite Muslim-led Iran to the east or pro-U.S. Arab governments to the west and south.

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U.S. officials hope the vote will stabilize Iraq and allay domestic fears that the country has turned into a political and military quagmire with no foreseeable end.

“There’s a lot of joy as far as I’m concerned in seeing the Iraqi people accomplish this major milestone in the march to democracy,” President Bush said at a White House meeting with Iraqi expatriate voters. “I believe freedom is universal. I believe the Iraqi citizen cares just as much about freedom and living a free life as the American citizen does.”

In Iraq, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said the American people were watching the election and postelection period closely, knowing that a harmonious and inclusive Iraqi government would be a step toward bringing U.S. troops home. He issued what he said was a challenge to Iraqi politicians to rise above sectarian tensions and other rivalries that beset the formation of an interim government after January’s vote and the later drafting of a national constitution.

“After the elections, [the American people] will be looking to see what’s next. Will the country come together, or will it fall apart?” Biden said after visiting a polling station in the southern city of Hillah. “Now the hard part of democracy comes. After you choose the leaders, are they going to be able to come together?”

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The top U.S. commander in Iraq said Thursday that voter turnout in the predominantly Sunni province of Al Anbar “increased fairly substantially” compared with the October referendum. Army Gen. George W. Casey also said he expected the insurgency would gradually subside as “the root causes ... are addressed.”

Even with Thursday’s balloting, however, Casey predicted continued violence and political turmoil as Iraqis worked to forge a new government. During the first six months of 2006, Casey said, he expected “fairly divisive” fights over amending Iraq’s constitution and the issue of federalism for the main ethnic groups.

Though final results won’t be available for days, many political observers in the country say this election may well be remembered as one that cemented Iraq’s new political status quo: They say a big Shiite religious bloc with clerical backing is likely to grab the most seats; the Kurds, with at least 20% of the votes and seats, are expected to solidify their grip on the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and on ministries in Baghdad; Iyad Allawi, the great secular hope for the U.S. and for Iraqi liberals, is likely to again dash expectations by falling short in the popular vote; and the minority Sunnis, once they find that having a parliamentary platform won’t mean they can simply boot out American troops, are likely to remain angry and resentful.

There were five known deaths caused by insurgent attacks on election day. An attack on a polling site west of Kirkuk left two police officers dead after a 30-minute gunfight, a police official in the northern city said. A roadside bomb near Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad, killed one and injured four. A civilian in Tall Afar, near the Syrian border, was killed by a mortar shell, and additional rounds fell on the capital and Mosul, causing several injuries, including to a 7-year-old girl in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood. A school guard in Mosul was also killed in an insurgent attack Thursday.

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Of the more than 6,200 polling stations nationwide, 162 were closed for security reasons. In volatile Al Anbar province, 20 fewer voting centers were shut down Thursday than in the October referendum.

Election officials around the country reported minor problems, including ballot shortages and frustrated voters who couldn’t find their names on registration rolls. A surge of late voters kept election centers around the country open an hour past the scheduled closing time. An Allawi spokesperson in Basra complained that activists of the ruling Shiite coalition were using police cars and loudspeakers to ask people to vote for their ticket despite a ban on campaigning that took effect on election eve.

Both Iraqi and U.S. officials are hoping that with increased Sunni participation in the election, the minority group will gain clout at the political table and the Sunni-led insurgency will curtail its attacks.

“If we get more seats, it will be quieter,” said Amer Fadhel Hassani, 45, the Sunni owner of an electrical supply store in Baghdad. “The ones who were absent in January will now have a voice.”

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But among voters from Sunni Arab communities strongly supportive of the insurgency, most said the fighting against the U.S.-led military and Iraqi security forces would not stop.

“The resistance will continue,” said Qessan Nasseri, a 47-year-old Sunni Arab accountant and member of the same tribe as Hussein. “Nobody wants America on Iraqi soil. As long as we are occupied, no one will lay down their weapons.”

Except for urbane Shiites, Sunnis and Christians supporting the secular Allawi, Iraqis consistently have said they would be voting along ethnic and sectarian lines: Shiites for Shiites, Sunnis for Sunnis, and Kurds for Kurds, heightening fears that the country is growing more fragmented.

In some cases, Iraqis cast ballots in hopes of promoting confrontational agendas, such as taking control of disputed, multiethnic Kirkuk.

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“I voted for the Kurdistan list because its leaders promised to annex the city of Kirkuk to the Kurdistan region,” said Khorshid Rashid, 45, a Kurdish civil service employee in the city.

Voters chose from a kaleidoscopic array of candidates, coalitions and parties to fill the Council of Representatives, which will replace the transitional National Assembly. More than 7,000 candidates were on the ballot, representing 19 multiparty coalitions and more than 300 political parties or independent candidacies.

But Iraq’s election rules and demographic realities will probably give one ticket a commanding status: the Shiite Muslim United Iraqi Alliance, which dominates the incumbent government of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari.

Though it probably will not be able to match the 48% of votes it received in January, the coalition of political parties representing the country’s Shiite majority will almost certainly be the largest vote-getter, giving it first crack at forming a government. It will also probably win the 92 seats needed to block other parties from obtaining the two-thirds majority required to name a president and vice presidents, who have the authority to then name a prime minister to form the government.

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United Iraqi Alliance strategists predicted that they would capture between 115 and 135 seats, compared with the 140 they won in the January election.

Many Sunni voters said Thursday that they had refrained from voting in January in boycott or out of fear of violence. But they voted with enthusiasm Thursday, mostly for a coalition of Sunni parties and organizations called the Iraqi Consensus Front and for a slate led by Arab nationalist Saleh Mutlak, but in some cases for the secular bloc led by Allawi, the former interim prime minister.

“I didn’t vote in January because at the time the political realities were not clear,” said Abdul Samariyee, 65, a retired tax collector in Baghdad’s Qadisiya district, where police were seen driving a pregnant woman to the polling station. “Now, Iraqis have begun to realize that the peaceful way is better than violence to get their demands.”

But few if any who voted in January said they had defected from the tickets they earlier supported, a bad sign for secular politicians hoping to draw votes from Shiites dissatisfied with Jafari’s government.

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“I voted for the alliance last time, and I voted for them this time,” said Abdul-Wahab Issa, a 60-year-old Basra retiree. “Though they haven’t been in power long, they achieved a lot, like finishing the constitution.”

In Sadr City, the sprawling neighborhood of poor, religious Shiites in northeastern Baghdad, long lines formed even before the 7 a.m. start of voting, with people dancing in the streets and chanting in support of the alliance.

“We will prove our presence as Iraqis and as poor Shiite people who were oppressed by the former criminal government,” said Jamil Aboud, a 48-year-old Ministry of Industry employee, referring to the Hussein regime. “We are putting our fate in [the alliance’s] safe hands.”

Voters also lined up before the polls opened in Najaf. In the Shiite south, where 81 parliamentary seats spread across nine provinces were being contested, demonstrators galvanized by recent perceived insults to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country’s top Shiite cleric, marched in the streets, testing the limits of a law banning election day campaigning.

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In the north, where Iraq’s Kurds are confident they’ll keep their semiautonomous enclave and maintain control over key ministries in the federal government, election day became an outdoor street festival. In Sulaymaniya and Irbil, police shrugged as drivers defying a ban on vehicles clogged the streets and honked their horns to cheering passersby. Voters donned colorful traditional village costumes as they headed to swarmed election centers.

“It is a national wedding day,” said President Jalal Talabani, a leader of the coalition of Kurdish parties, after casting his ballot in Sulaymaniya. “We are all happy because we will choose a parliament that will last for four years. I hope we can choose the right people to achieve our dreams.”

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Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux and staff writers and special correspondents in Baghdad, Basra, Baqubah, Irbil, Fallouja, Hillah, Kirkuk, Mosul, Najaf, Ramadi, Samarra, Samawah, Sulaymaniya, Taji and Washington contributed to this report.

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