Iraqis voted on Wednesday in the first national election since US troops left, with prime minister Nouri Al Maliki seeking a third term of office and expressing confidence he will win.
At least 15 people were killed and 23 wounded across the country in polling day attacks, according to police statements, an indication of a recent steady rise in violence, which has seen Al Qaeda affiliated factions growing in power to seize control in western desert regions.
Mr Al Maliki, 63, has hinged his re-election campaign on a promise of security, insisting only he is tough enough to take on Sunni militant groups and restore stability.
Critics of his Shiite dominated government blame him for the increase in sectarian polarisation, saying he has done nothing to ease tensions and unite a divided nation, favouring Shiites and fuelling a sense of disenfranchisement and anger among Iraq’s Sunnis.
Turnout appeared to be relatively low, with early counts from the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) saying around 40 per cent of 21 million eligible voters had cast ballots by late afternoon — a figure indicative of the general low regard with which Iraqis hold their political classes. Polling centres were due to close at 6pm.
“Today is a big success, and even better than the last elections, even though there is no foreign soldier on Iraqi soil,” Mr Al Maliki said, as he cast his vote at the highly fortified Rasheed hotel in central Baghdad. Government forces were deployed in strength throughout the capital. US soldiers pulled out more than two years ago.
Mr Al Maliki’s rule has been controversial, with corruption and poverty rife, power cuts still the norm and growing insecurity. A total of 3,015 civilians were killed in the first three months of this year, according to the unofficial Iraq Body Count website, more than triple the number from a year earlier.
Security officials reported more than 40 attacks yesterday, including mortar fire, roadside bombs and a suicide blast, targeting polling stations or people on their way to vote in northern and western Iraq.
Among those killed were two IHEC employees who died in two bomb blasts as they were being escorted by a military convoy in northern Iraq.
In addition to deteriorating security, Mr Al Maliki has faced persistent accusations of trying to hold onto power at any cost. In August, he successfully sought a High Court ruling that he be allowed to stand for a third term, overcoming objections laid down by parliament, which insisted that all premiers be limited to two terms in office in their lifetimes.
His opponents, and many independent observers say the court and other supposedly impartial organisations, including IHEC, have been staffed by Maliki loyalists and put under political pressure from the prime ministers office. Key security agencies also answer directly to him.
More than 40 MPs have boycotted parliament since December, in protest at the treatment of Sunnis, including arrests and campaigns by anti-terrorist squads they say target them on sectarian grounds.
Mr Al Maliki’s government has also come in for intense criticism from rival Shiite factions, including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by Ammar Al Hakim and the Sadrist Movement of cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, for what they say is his unwillingness to share power.
In the main southern city of Basra, civil servant Adel Salim Khudayr, 52, said he wanted Wednesday to be “a day of change, so there will not be any dictatorship to govern Iraq”.
“We want a real democracy, not a democracy of religious parties. We do not want to elect any candidate from the previous parliament.”
Despite this opposition, anecdotal soundings from Iraqis suggest the prime minister remains popular, especially among many Shiites, who see him as a bulwark against Sunni extremism.
“If we are not coming to vote, who is going to come (to power)?” asked Umm Jabbar, who had queued outside a polling station in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf since 6:00am.
“Will the enemy come? I am voting for Maliki, because he is a thorn in the eyes of the enemy,” said the woman in her eighties, quoting an Arabic proverb.
More than 9,000 candidates are competing for 328 parliament seats. The process is being monitored by more than 1,200 international observers and 30,000 Iraqis.
Official results are due to be announced within 15 days but formation of a government may take much longer. Following the close fought and controversial last election, in December 2010, it took nine months for parliament to agree on a majority government, headed by Mr Al Maliki.
Iran was seen as a key power broker in Mr Al Maliki’s eventual coronation. Since then, Baghdad’s relations with Tehran have gown tighter while its links to the US have cooled, with Washington accusing Iraq of helping Tehran suppress an uprising in Syria, sending in militia fighters and permitting the transport of weapons to regime forces though its airspace.
Major political disputes dogging the country at the time of the 2010 election remain unresolved, including the passage of an energy law, persistent budgetary problems and on-going dispute with the Kurds over the level of autonomy and exploitation of oil rights.
Transparency International, a Berlin-based anti-graft group, ranks Iraq 171st among 175 countries and territories in its 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index. Iraq ranked 137th out of 159 in 2005.
* Reuters and Agence France-Presse