Calm Iraqi election marred as thousands were denied vote

BAGHDAD — Iraqis cast ballots in 14 of the country's 18 provinces Saturday, selecting among 14,500 candidates for 440 seats on new provincial councils.

The day was free of election-related violence, but thousands of Iraqis were unable to vote because their names were inexplicably missing from voter lists. Some confused Iraqis even wandered neighborhoods looking for a polling place that would accept their vote.

The extent of the no-vote could not be determined, but thousands of Iraqis in some locales took to the streets to protest.

McClatchy reporters located across Iraq also noted that turnout was not as sizable as previous elections.

Nonetheless, election monitors deemed the election, which essentially selected local government officials, a success and even President Barack Obama congratulated the citizens of the war-torn nation on the balloting.

Preliminary results will not be known for some five days. Final results would take weeks.

By 7 p.m. Iraq time, all the polls were closed and the United Nations envoy to Iraq Staffan de Mistura along with the head of the Independent High Electoral Commission Faraj al Haidari congratulated themselves and Iraq on a successful election.

"This is your success and the success of all Iraqis," de Mistura said in a press conference. "This is probably one of the most observed elections in recent years."

In Washington, President Obama also praised the election.

"I congratulate the people of Iraq on holding significant provincial elections today," Obama said in a statement. "Millions of Iraqi citizens from every ethnic and religious group went peacefully to the polls across the country to choose new provincial councils. It is important that the councils get seated, select new governors, and begin work on behalf of the Iraqi people who elected them."

Saturday's balloting allows Iraqis to select provincial council members who in turn chose the governor of each Iraqi province. They are the equivalent of a state legislature.

Under Iraqi law, the power of provincial councils remains unclear. They have control over local security forces, public facilities and influence over the appointment of senior ministry officials in their province. But the Baghdad national parliament can remove governors and other provincial officials and the provincial budget will come from the federal government.

More than 500,000 local and party observers watched Saturday's election and hundreds of international observers came from outside of Iraq including from the European Union and the Arab League.

Vehicular traffic was banned for much of the day as a security precaution, and many voters walked as much as three hours to reach their assigned polling stations. Children took over the empty streets and turned them into makeshift soccer fields. The goals were made of shoes and bricks.

Many other Iraqis apparently chose not to vote at all, and in Baghdad the polling centers, which surrounded by concertina wire, saw only a trickle of voters. The commission said there would be no numbers on voter turnout for another day.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki lifted the vehicle ban in the afternoon and urged people to get out to vote. Turnout was far less than previous elections, when Iraqis stood in line for hours across the country, except in the disputed areas in Nineveh province where Arab and Kurdish tensions are most visible. These areas were packed with voters.

The biggest complaint among potential voters was that their names were missing from the rosters at polling stations. Some walked from station to station searching for a polling place that had their names. Iraqis were to vote where their ration card was registered.

"I am looking for my name and I've been to five polling stations in the neighborhood and I still can't find my name," said Saleh Talib Kadhim, a resident of Jamiaa, a mostly Sunni Muslim neighborhood in the city's west. "I will not give up my right to vote. I will keep looking."

It would be Kadhim's first time to cast a ballot. The Sunni Arab boycotted the last election, which many perceived as a fraudulent because it was influenced by Iran and the United States.

In Haswa just west of Baghdad, thousands of the displaced demonstrated because they wouldn't find their names on the list. Record numbers of people turned out to vote in the Sunni area just west of Baghdad.

"We want our rights," they chanted. "This is a conspiracy."

It was unclear who would win in the elections with so many candidates and parties competing for the same votes. Familiar faces like Prime Minister Maliki seemed to be getting votes across the country. Secularist Ayad Allawi, an ex-CIA operative and former Prime Minister of Iraq, was popular among Sunni Arab voters.

Many Iraqis said that parties had offered them cash and gifts in exchange for a vote.

In Adhamiyah, Safiya Jassim, 40, voted and exited a polling station. After she passed the Iraqi and American tanks outside the school she proudly announced her family's association with Saddam Hussein's Baath party.

She voted for Allawi, who the U.S. installed as prime minister in 2004. Many Iraqis have grown disenchanted with the religious parties that came to power in the last election.

"I came here so our sons might be something, get jobs and stand by us," she said. "Every vote counts."

Even in the Shiite holy city of Najaf where religious sentiments are at an all time high in the midst of 40 days of mourning for Hussein, the grandson of the Muslim prophet Mohammed, slaughtered in nearby Karbala almost 1,400 years ago, voters showed disgust for religious parties.

"We were cheated by Islamic parties in the previous election," said Mohammed Hassan, 27. "They've been discovered. I will not make the same mistake so I voted for a secular party because this is the best. I voted for Ayad Allawi."

Tensions were greatest in Nineveh in the country's north as Kurdish and Arab parties vie for seats and control. The current provincial council is dominated by Kurds in the mostly Sunni Arab province.

Sheikh Abdullah al Yawar, a member of the Hadbaa slate in Rabiaa near the Syrian border, accused Kurdish parties of fraud in his area and the district of Sinjar a mixed area of Yazidis and Arabs.

He said members of the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Kurdish intelligence were forcing people to choose the Kurdish slate, the Fraternity of Nineveh, with threats and intimidation.

The electoral commission said it was investigating, but the province's deputy governor, Khasrow Goran, denied the accusations.

Kurdish parties in Nineveh and Diyala province, both areas of mixed Arab and Kurdish populations, said that nearly 30,000 Kurds were not on polling center lists and could not vote. The Electoral commission said those that couldn't vote had relocated their place of residence tracked by a ration card late last year making them ineligible

In Diyala province in the mostly Kurdish area of Khanaqeen, Kurds marched in front of the local office of the Independent High Electoral Commission because some 16,000 weren't allowed to vote.

"Khanaqeen will stay Kurdish despite not letting us vote," they shouted.

Yasir Baqir, 28, withheld his vote in his city of Mosul. Every promise politicians made to Iraqis were left unfulfilled.

"I didn't participate in this election because I don't trust any list," he said. "We read and see many promises but nothing real and we still have crisis, there is still no security."

Many Iraqis from Baghdad to the southern city of Najaf voted for one reason. They didn't want someone to steal their ballot and cast a vote for someone else. The elections in 2005 were rife with fraud. Iran was accused of wide interference including bussing in fake ballots from across the border. The biggest fear is that this could happen again.

In Ameriyah Mohammed Allawi, 25, laughed when asked why he came to vote.

"We are an occupied country," he said. "I am voting only so that my vote will not be stolen by the corrupt people who are willing to do anything to remain firm on their seats."

His name was not on the roster's list and he left dejected.

After polls closed, Maliki who'd cast his own ballot on Saturday morning called the elections a success.

"It remains ahead what we will know of winning and not winning," he said. "I hope this will be a reason to continue the competition...and to head as loving brothers and partners to build the provincial councils and the local governments so we can raise our country."

Thirteen McClatchy Special Correspondents contributed from all over Iraq.


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