BAGHDAD - In an election expected to significantly alter the country's political equation, Iraqis started choosing provincial councils today to replace the current ones blamed for fueling years of sectarian strife.
Late yesterday, vehicular curfews took effect in cities, the airport here was closed, and borders were sealed, signs of security concerns that remain sky-high despite a major drop in violence in recent months. Polling stations were ringed with razor wire and under 24-hour police guard. At one station, police Lt. Dhia Khadim bragged that voters would have to pass through six searches before casting their ballots.
"It's essential," Khadim said as a rooster crowed nearby and wind sent dust swirling about the courtyard of the polling site, which normally serves as a school. Khadim indicated the two long pathways - one for men, one for women - lined with razor wire along which voters would have to pass before voting.
At stake are 440 seats on 14 provincial councils - the rough equivalent of U.S. state legislatures - in Iraq. The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., and provisional results are expected about 72 hours later. Final results verified by international observers are not likely for a month because of anticipated complaints of fraud or violations that will have to be investigated, and because ballots will be counted by hand.
The current councils are dominated by Shiites and Kurds, even in areas where Sunni Arabs dominate, an inequity caused by Sunni parties' boycott of the last election in 2005. The decision served to exacerbate sectarian and ethnic tensions that had already boiled over into violence and have continued to hinder political progress.
Today's election is seen as a barometer of Iraq's ability to remain relatively placid as U.S. military forces scale back their presence. If the hundreds of international observers and thousands of national observers conclude that the election was free and fair, and if losing candidates accept the outcome, it will show that Iraq has chosen politics over bloodshed to bring change, said Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy to Iraq.
A smooth outcome could also heighten President Barack Obama's desire to accelerate the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, something he wants to achieve within 16 months. That places military commanders in Iraq in a delicate situation. They are eager to highlight Iraq's improved security and point to the elections as a milestone, but they also warn against a hasty withdrawal of the 145,000 American forces here.
"I think over-focus on a single event is always dangerous, be it positive or negative," said Brig. Gen. Daniel B. Allyn, one of the top commanders of U.S. forces in Iraq, speaking of the election as a measure of Iraq's future stability. "Iraq is on a journey. It's on a journey toward sovereign nationhood," he said, noting that with nearly 14,500 candidates vying for council seats, most would lose. "That's a lot of disappointed people, like about 14,000 of them."
De Mistura said he was confident there would not be a return to violence as occurred after the 2005 election, because this time Sunni Arab parties are taking part. In addition, he said, Iraq has overcome what he called the "Samarra syndrome" - the tendency to explode in vengeful violence after a major attack such as the 2006 bombing of a revered Shiite mosque in the city of Samarra. The attack led to a steep surge in Shiite-Sunni violence that displaced hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and left the capital carved into neighborhoods divided along sectarian lines.
For that reason, Abu Walid Jabouri said yesterday he would not vote for anyone. Jabouri said he did not trust any of the more than 300 parties fielding candidates to overcome the perils of sectarianism.
"I will go to the poll, but I will not write anything. I will just draw a line across the ballot," said Jabouri, out for an afternoon stroll with his wife and young daughter.
Mohammed Hussein said he had not yet decided whom to vote for. His quandary reflected the dilemma many Iraqis face as they weigh whether to reward Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party for overseeing security gains, or reject Dawa for its Shiite religious bent and failure to improve services such as electricity and water.
In 2005, Hussein supported the Iraqi National Accord, a secular party headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. With security his main concern, Hussein wasn't sure which way to go.
"We want whoever rules us to be secular, but we also want security," Hussein said, admitting that al-Maliki had impressed him with his crackdown last spring on Shiite militias.
Maliki is hoping the crackdown will ensure Dawa victory in Baghdad and southern provinces where it is vying for power over another Shiite party, the rival Supreme Islamic Iraq Council.