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A momentous vote in Iraq after years of war

Polls open throughout most of the country for a provincial election that could shift the balance of power.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 30, 2009

Early voting: Security forces, like these in Najaf, voted Wednesday.

Alaa al-Marjani/AP

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Mosul, Iraq

In a country undergoing a grand reinvention, voters Saturday will choose not just who represents them in provincial governments but define the shape of Iraq in the tumultuous year ahead.

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It's a national election full of firsts: The first held by a fully sovereign Iraq; the first in which Iraq's vital Sunni Arab minority is playing a large role; and the first in which Iraqis can vote for a flood of individual candidates – 14,467 of them vying for 440 seats – as well as parties.

"Those whom they elect – provincial council directors or governors – eventually are the ones who actually control the resources ... who can or cannot deliver water, electricity, sanitation, and provide employment," says United Nations special representative Stefan de Mistura in Baghdad.

"Members of parliament provide laws – these people, people have learned, are going to be accountable in terms of real power – power on the ground," he says.

Mr. de Mistura brokered the deal to hold the vote by convincing Iraqis to temporarily set aside the issue of Kirkuk, the city claimed both by Arabs and Kurds.

To avoid allegations of voter registration and ballot fraud that marred the 2005 elections in some areas, the UN has overseen a complex array of security features: from the 20 million ballots printed outside Iraq in the same place the United Arab Emirates uses to print its currency to the indelible India ink that still stained de Mistura's finger purple 11 days after he tested it.

Ahead of national elections later this year, Saturday's polls will be a key test for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party in its race for voter support in Iraq's Shiite south.

Voting has been postponed in Kirkuk and is not being held in the semiautonomous Kurdish north, which has had its own government since 1991. But it's the swath of territory between the north and central Iraq where the elections will likely have the most lasting impact.

Here in volatile Nineveh Province, which borders the Kurdish region, the election could end up physically redrawing its boundaries. As the Shiite-Sunni rift that flared into sectarian war in 2006 has waned, concern by US officials is growing over Kurdish-Arab tensions, with recent flare-ups between Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and Mr. Maliki.

Following the Sunni Arab boycott of the 2005 vote, 31 of Nineveh's 41 seats have been held by Kurds, even though Kurds are a minority in the largely Arab province. Some Kurds on the provincial council, who will almost certainly lose their seats, made a move in December to have the elections stopped.

"It has really been a crisis of a lack of representative government in Nineveh," says one Western analyst here. Officials say the government has been so dysfunctional, that in a region in which unemployment is estimated at more than 50 percent, it spent only 40 percent of the budget allotted to it last year.

There are few places where campaigning has been so rife with threats and intimidation.

"We have been campaigning secretly," says Atheel Abdul Aziz al-Najaefi, head of the Sunni Arab al-Hadba group that has pledged to stop the Kurds from expanding territory by annexing cities and towns along the "green line" – the demarcation of the KRG.