Iraqi provincial elections relatively peaceful

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with then-President George W Bush of America in 2006
Image: Kimberlee Hewitt.

Voters in Iraq have gone to the polls today, the first time in four years, to elect provincial councils.

There have been few reports of the violence or intimidation that have marred previous polls, although there has been violence in the run up to the election. A curfew is in place and airports and borders are closed. Security is tight, with the army guarding polling stations. Three mortar shells (or four flash bombs) are reported to have fallen near a polling station in Tikrit, but without causing injuries. A civilian and six policemen were injured by a bomb in Tuz Khurmatu, north of the capital Baghdad.

There are more than 14,000 people standing in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces, with 440 seats up for election. The three Kurdish-controlled provinces are not voting and the election in Kirkuk province has been postponed. Provincial councils in the country have a large workforce, meaning that changes of control lead to changes in workforce. This gives winning candidates a lot of power in their local area. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency estimated that unemployment rates in the country were between 18% and 30% in 2006.

Analysts have said that voters are likely to turn away from religious parties and focus instead on nationalist and secular issues. In previous elections, the Sunni minority in the country had boycotted the polls. Reports say that they are turning out this time, with high turnouts in Sunni-dominated provinces like Anbar, and voting has been extended by an hour to allow more time.

Iraq was a one-party state following a revolution in 1968. Former dictator Saddam Hussein came to power in an internal coup in 1979. He was removed from power in 2003 following the controversial American-led invasion of the country. After the invasion, the economy and civil structure of the country collapsed but now appears to be stabilising, with more areas being returned to local control and plans by new U.S. President Barack Obama for American troops to withdraw.