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In Iraq, improved security boosts Maliki at polls

A young Sunni man strolling along the Tigris River hesitated when asked whom he had voted for in provincial elections Saturday. Then he gave an answer that would have seemed unthinkable during the depths of Iraq’s bloody civil war: “Our prime minister” -- the Shiite head of government, Nouri Maliki.

Along Haifa Street, where high-rises once served as shooting galleries for Sunni gunmen battling U.S. troops, another Sunni voter was coy about his choice but hinted that he too was pleased with the job Maliki has done. “Definitely I’m happy,” the elderly man said when asked his opinion of the current state of affairs in Iraq.

Four years ago, during Iraq’s last provincial elections, most Sunnis boycotted the vote, leaving the country’s powerful provincial councils dominated by the ascendant Shiites and Kurds. This time the Sunnis took part, but that won’t necessarily hurt Maliki as he seeks to solidify his Islamic party’s hold on power.

Sectarianism remains an issue here, but in some voters’ minds, it’s trumped by the improved security that Maliki, rightly or wrongly, is credited with bringing to once-lawless parts of Iraq.

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Underscoring the security gains were the latest death tolls from war-related violence, released Friday: 189 civilians and Iraqi security forces were killed in January, the lowest total since April 2003, when the initial ground war of the U.S.-led invasion ended.

“When there are insurgents on the Sunni side, he hits them. When there are insurgents on the Shiite side, he hits them,” the riverside stroller, Wissam Hussam, said of Maliki, whom he initially distrusted on sectarian grounds but has grown to admire.

Such views bode well for the prime minister, who faces national elections later this year and would like to use a strong showing in this vote to hinder his rivals, be they Kurds in the north, rival Shiites in the south, secularists, or Sunni parties.

Provisional results from the vote are expected this week, and final results verified by international observers won’t be known for about a month. Late Saturday, the plastic tubs stuffed with the poster-sized ballots were being emptied by election workers for transport to a central counting center in Baghdad’s Green Zone.

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Election officials and police reported no major violence, compared with Jan. 30, 2005, voting in which more than 40 people were killed. A driving ban was in effect for most of the day, turning Baghdad’s traffic-choked streets into soccer fields for boys and young men using boxes and rocks as goal posts. Smartly dressed families strolled together to polling stations, past rows of chickens roasting on cafe spits and old men sipping tea.

Many adults headed to vote with children in tow, a sign that the security fears of the past were gone. At a polling site in the capital’s heavily Shiite Sadr City, election volunteers had laced the rooms with ribbons, glittering tinsel, silk roses and colored balloons that bore the messages, “I love you” and “Happy Birshday.” The spelling was off, but the idea was clear.

“When people come to vote, they should be happy,” the director of the polling station said when asked about the decorations.

But there were problems, with some voters saying their names did not appear on polling station voter rolls, denying them the chance to cast ballots. In some cases, people had gone to the wrong stations.

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But other voters said there was no reason for their names to be missing. “This is not fair!” said one flustered, middle-aged man in the southern city of Kufa. “I can’t believe this. I voted in this center during the last elections, but now I can’t find my name here. I went to three other polling stations, but still no luck.”

Some voters were assigned polling places far from home, and the ban on driving made it difficult for them to reach the polls. The prohibition, scheduled to last through the night, was lifted at 3 p.m., and voting was extended an hour. No turnout figures were expected until today.

Since last March, when Maliki launched an offensive against Shiite militiamen in the southern city of Basra, his public image has changed. His metamorphosis from a supposedly weak leader struggling to earn respect from lawmakers to a strongman exerting his authority quickly began drawing accusations from political rivals that he was a despot.

In the campaign’s final days, Maliki launched a charm offensive in major cities, preaching against sectarianism and insisting that the election process itself -- not the result -- was the important thing.

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“Saturday must be an electoral wedding party,” he said Thursday in the northern city of Mosul, where he urged Iraqis to “send a message to the world” that they no longer defined themselves according to religious sect.

His critics among the electorate scoff at such proclamations. Ali Sami, a pharmacist in Baghdad, said he had voted for the secular Iraqiya slate of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in 2005 and planned to do the same this time, although he acknowledged that he was impressed with the security gains achieved in recent months.

Hamid Nazir, a college student, also rejected Maliki’s claims of reconciliation. “Most of those groups are linked to Iran,” he said, speaking of Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party and other Shiite parties. “I don’t like them.” He, too, supported Allawi. “People love him. He’s secular,” Nazir said.

On Haifa Street, though, the elderly Sunni man, Faris Azzawi, brimmed with optimism as he headed to a polling station with his wife, Umm Farid, and 20-year-old daughter, Mona, in tow. It was Mona’s first time voting, and she followed her parents’ lead: not saying whom she would choose, but making clear she supported the status quo.

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A U.S. military convoy idled in the street nearby, a reminder of the security threats still lurking in Iraq. But Azzawi said that overall, life was good and he saw no reason to switch political gears just as Iraqis were adjusting to democracy.

Those who would change the current situation don’t understand that democracy takes time, said Azzawi, citing the Watergate scandal as proof that no system is foolproof. “You gained democracy over 200 years ago, and still it’s not perfect,” he said, leaning on his cane.

Hussam, the young man near the Tigris, said he was under no illusions that Iraq’s Sunni-Shiite animosities were over. He was convinced, however, that the mind-boggling violence of the civil war was a thing of the past if Maliki remained in power.

“The Shiites still think the Shiite way, and the Sunnis still think the Sunni way, but at least now we don’t want to fight,” he said before continuing his walk up the river.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

Times staff writer Monte Morin contributed to this report.


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