by Staff Writers
Baghdad (AFP) April 30, 2014
Iraqis defied a rash of attacks that killed 14 people Wednesday and voted in the first general election since US troops withdrew, with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki proclaiming "certain" victory.
Around 60 percent of the country's 20 million eligible voters cast their ballots in the poll, which was hailed by the United States and United Nations as a rebuke to jihadists who sought to derail the parliamentary election.
Ballot counting began immediately after polls closed at 6:00 pm (1500 GMT), but the election commission cautioned that its turnout figure was not final as it was awaiting information from various unstable areas, and preliminary results are not expected until mid-May.
Iraqis complain of myriad grievances, from poor public services to rampant corruption and high unemployment, but the month-long campaign has hinged on Maliki's bid for a third term and dramatically deteriorating security.
Maliki encouraged high turnout and voiced confidence he would stay in power after voting at a VIP polling centre early on in the Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.
"Today is a big success, and even better than the last elections, even though there is no foreign soldier on Iraqi soil," he said.
Maliki called for a move away from national unity governments towards ones of political majority, confidently telling journalists: "Our victory is certain, but we are waiting to see the size of our victory."
In Washington, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Iraqis had "courageously voted," sending "a powerful rebuke to the violent extremists who have tried to thwart the democratic process and sow discord in Iraq and throughout the region."
And the UN's special envoy to Iraq Nickolay Mladenov told reporters in Baghdad that "those who have tried to disrupt the campaign period and election day... have been proven wrong."
The runup to the election, the first parliamentary poll since US forces withdrew in December 2011, has seen Baghdad and other major cities swamped in posters and bunting.
Parties have held rallies and candidates have angrily debated on television, but their appeals have largely been made on sectarian, ethnic or tribal grounds rather than political and social issues.
- Voting despite unrest -
Analysts had expressed fears much of the electorate would stay at home rather than risk being targeted by militants, who killed nearly 90 people over the two previous days.
And fresh attacks were launched soon after polls opened, killing 14 people and wounding dozens, with security officials reporting more than 50 incidents in all.
Among those killed were two election commission employes who died in bombings as they were being escorted by a military convoy in northern Iraq.
Also north of Baghdad, militants seized a polling station and blew it up, after expelling election staff and those waiting to vote.
But many Iraqis said they were determined to vote despite the unrest, voicing disdain for the current crop of elected officials.
"I came to vote for change for my children and my grandchildren, to change the future and the situation of the country for the better," said Abu Ashraf, 67, a retired accountant who declined to give his full name.
"It is necessary to change most of the politicians because they have done nothing, and they spend years on private conflicts," he said after voting in west Baghdad.
Others voiced confidence in Maliki and his Shiite-led government.
"If we are not coming to vote, who is going to come (to power)?" asked Umm Jabbar, who had queued since 6:00 am outside a polling station in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf.
"Will the enemy come? I am voting for Maliki, because he is a thorn in the eyes of the enemy."
More than 750 people have been killed this month, with violence at its highest levels since a brutal sectarian conflict killed tens of thousands in 2006 and 2007.
Militants have controlled the town of Fallujah since the beginning of the year, preventing polling in parts of mainly Sunni Arab Anbar province, west of Baghdad.
Maliki's critics have accused him of concentrating power and marginalising the Sunni minority, and say public services have not sufficiently improved during his eight-year rule.
The 63-year-old contends the violence is fuelled by the conflict in neighbouring Syria and has accused Sunni Saudi Arabia and Qatar of backing insurgents.
Maliki's State of Law alliance is tipped to win the most seats in parliament but fall short of a majority. That means he will have to court other Shiite parties, as well as Sunni and Kurdish blocs, if he is to remain in power.
Mortars, sound grenades target Iraq voters, no victims
The mortars did not cause any casualties, according to Shaker al-Essawi, a senior municipal official in the area just west of Baghdad where the attacks took place.
Elsewhere in Iraq, militants set off nearly a dozen sound grenades in the ethnically mixed town of Tuz Khurmatu, north of Baghdad, while a senior police chief in Kirkuk province survived an assassination attempt carried out with twin bombings targeting his convoy, officials said.
The violence comes after two days of bloodshed that left nearly 90 people dead nationwide, ahead of the nationwide vote in which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is seeking a third term in office.
Unrest has surged in recent months, with more than 750 people killed already this month, according to an AFP tally.
Factfile on Iraq
GEOGRAPHY: Bordered by Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Kuwait, Iraq has a narrow outlet to the sea on the Gulf, and a surface area of 438,317 square kilometres (169,235 square miles).
POPULATION: 34.8 million, of whom about 75-80 percent are Arabs and 15-20 percent Kurds, mainly living in the autonomous north.
RELIGION: 97 percent of the population is Muslim, with the remainder made up mostly of Christians but also small sects including Yazidis, Shabaks and Sabeans. Of the Muslim population, 60-65 percent are Shiite, and the remainder Sunni. The Christian population has more than halved since the 2003 US-led invasion.
ECONOMY: Iraq depends heavily on oil exports, which touched 2.8 million barrels per day in early 2014. Its proven deposits of oil and gas are among the world's highest. Crude exports account for over 70 percent of GDP, and more than 95 percent of government revenue. In March 2013, the International Monetary Fund said Iraq still suffers "severe structural weaknesses", including high unemployment and a limited non-oil sector.
GDP PER CAPITA: $6,377 (World Bank)
RECENT HISTORY: Today's Iraq covers much of ancient Mesopotamia, one of the cradles of civilisation. In the early modern era it became part of the Ottoman Empire.
British-ruled in the early 20th century, Iraq became formally independent in 1932. The monarchy was abolished in 1958 after a coup and a republic was established.
Saddam Hussein became president in 1979, 11 years after his Baath party took control.
Several wars have shaken the country -- the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war, the 1991 Gulf War over Kuwait and the US-led invasion in March 2003 which ousted Saddam, who was later executed.
After the departure of American soldiers in late 2011, Iraq was plunged into crisis and violence has surged to its worst since a Sunni-Shiite sectarian war in 2006-07. Since March 2003, at least 123,071 civilians have been killed in violence, according to Britain-based Iraq Body Count.
POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS: Iraq is a federal republic, and voters on April 30 will choose a 328-member parliament which in turn will chose the president. Typically, the president is a Kurd, the prime minister a Shiite and the parliament speaker a Sunni, though this is not codified.
MILITARY: 271,400 active duty military personnel and 531,000 interior ministry personnel (International Institute of Strategic Studies).
Iraq: The first technology war of the 21st century
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