Iraqis defy bombs and mortars to vote

Iraqis vote under fire in Iraq's national elections, with bombs and mortars killing at least 38 people and wounding more than 100.

Iraqis defied bombs, mortars and dynamite attacks to vote in their millions in crucial national elections yesterday. A barrage of 50 mortars and rockets hit the capital in the morning, many of them aimed at Sunni neighbourhoods and the fortified Green Zone, according to security services.

In Mosul, 390km north of Baghdad, a member of the provincial council was shot and seriously wounded at a checkpoint by Kurdish forces, as he went to cast his ballot. The violence did not keep voters away from polling stations, however, and failed to dampen a festive atmosphere in much of Baghdad. In the morning, boys took advantage of a ban on motor vehicles to play football in the streets, and shopkeepers and restaurants played loud music.

"Today we are very happy, like any citizen of Iraq," said Jamal Abdullah, 52, a train driver who had taken his family to the polling station. His children, too young to vote, proudly showed off their inked fingers. "I wanted them to have a taste of this democratic experience," he said. "Two mortars landed very near our house, but it still didn't stop us coming out with all the family." In the predominantly Sunni area of Azamiyah in northern Baghdad, cafe owner Walid Abid, a 40-year-old father of two, said: "I am not scared and I am not going to stay put at home."

Major Gen Ahmed Saidi, in charge of security for the Khakh area of Baghdad, said his forces had located and defused 20 makeshift bombs during the previous 72 hours. One of about 200,000 police and army personnel deployed in the Iraqi capital, he proclaimed a victory over the insurgents who had vowed to derail the election. "Because of their failure with the IEDs [improvised explosives], they've resorted to mortar attacks and they are very basic mortars and for the most part ineffective," he said.

"The terrorists have lost in their attempts today. We are now moving ahead and these elections will be a final blow to the terrorists who have disrupted our lives for the past five years." In the early hours of voting the security forces banned all vehicles from the streets, but the ban was relaxed later to permit private cars to be used. By the close of polls, at 5pm, there had been limited allegations of fraud committed yesterday, either by Iraqi or international monitors. Dozens of cross-party monitoring teams were deployed at each polling station.

Early voting for security forces was tainted by claims of irregularities. "It seems to have been clean and there was no violence and I've not heard any reports of cheating," said Abu Hussein, a resident of Basra, 590km south of Baghdad. "A lot of people have voted and many of them seem to have voted for moderate parties, not the religious parties that used to control the city." But Ayad Allawi, seen as the main rival to the prime minister Nouri al Maliki, called for an investigation of election officials, accusing them of lax procedures and demanding an accurate vote count.

"I'd like to record my objection to the performance of the IHEC," said Mr Allawi in a speech broadcast on the Al Sharqiya television channel, referring to the Independent High Electoral Commission. "There was major confusion inside and outside Iraq in the voting centres and that leaves a question mark over the IHEC's role. "I demand a wide investigation from the new parliament and all senior members of the IHEC should be made accountable.

"I am warning them that they must be accurate in the counting and checking procedures," Mr Allawi, head of the secular Iraqiyya list, said. Formal results are not likely to be announced for weeks but, anecdotally, the vote seems to have been dominated by the State of Law coalition, headed by Mr al Maliki, and his main rivals, Iraqiyya and the Iraqi National Alliance, a Shiite coalition containing Ibrahim al Jaafari, a former prime minister.

"If I had to say who had won, I would say Maliki, Allawi and Jaafari have all done very well, the issue is going to be who comes out on top," said one election official in southern Iraq. On his way out of a polling booth, Salman Azzar, 58, a Sunni and in owner of a sweets shop from Adhamiyah, a Baghdad neighbourhood notorious for its recent history of violence, said he was voting for Mr al Maliki, a Shiite.

"I'm a Sunni, but I'm voting for a Shia leader because these things don't matter," he said. "He is a peaceful man and he achieved some security." Turnout appears to have been mixed. In Sulaymaniyah province, a tense contest between Kurdish parties encouraged many to take part, various election centres saying 75 per cent of voters had cast ballots. At al Jazar polling station in Taifiyah, a Baghdad neighbourhood with a mix of Sunni and Shiite residents, only 300 of the 2,556 registered to vote had done so by midday. More came out however as the mortar attacks lulled.

"There were many explosions so people were afraid, but in the afternoon more were coming than in the morning," said Abdul Monem Adel, an electoral official at Basra School polling station in the Karrada district. He said turnout was at about 50 per cent by the close of polls. The shooting incident in Mosul will probably inflame tensions in what has long been a restive, dangerous province, a place divided between Kurds and Arabs, with smaller minority groups caught in between.

"In Kaznah, near Mosul city, a member of the council was shot at a checkpoint," an Iraqi security officer said. "The details are not clear, but there was some kind of argument between the councillor's bodyguards and the Kurdish forces on the road. There was shooting; the councillor was hit and so were two of his people." The official said the councillor was Qusai Abbas, from the minority Shabak community. Non-Kurdish ethnic groups persistently complain of intimidation by Kurd security forces, something joint patrols involving US troops were supposed to prevent.

Mr al Maliki praised Iraq's security forces for their work in safeguarding voters. "This day showed the failure of the terrorists and the victory of the will of the people," he said on state television. He also thanked Shiite clerics for urging people to come out and vote. Yesterday's elections, the second full parliamentary ballot since the US-led invasion of 2003, are widely viewed as a critical test of Iraq's fledging democratic system. A withdrawal timetable for US troops has been tied with both a successful vote and subsequent period of security.

With all ballots now cast, Iraq is likely to enter into a long period of political limbo. The next prime minister will almost certainly have to put together a coalition and negotiations are always tough. It took five months for the matter to be settled following the last national elections, in 2005.