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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.

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US and Arab officials say Kurdish authorities have been trying to extend their control along an arc of cities near the green line in towns that include substantial numbers of Christians and the ancient Yazidi and Shabak minorities. In some places the KRG provides electricity and builds schools and even churches. In others, Kurdish soldiers provide security.

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"The first election was a practice run for this – this is a first step toward building a democratic state," says Bassim Yacoub Jajo Bello, head of the Assyrian Democratic Movement. He estimated about 300,000 Christians – more than one-third of Iraq's Christian population – have left in the past five years. Christians are guaranteed one seat on Nineveh's Provincial Council but their votes are also sought by Arab and Kurdish parties.

"These places make up to 25 percent of the vote but the population is under control of the Kurds," says Mr. Najaefi, speaking in Mosul, referring to the arc of disputed communities. "Our candidates were not able to go and campaign in some of those places."

Although security has been tightened ahead of the polls, US and Iraqi officials warn of a bigger risk of violence after the results are announced next week. Some Western officials believe al-Hadba, with its strong support from Mosul's preponderance of former Baathists, is holding open the promise that they alone can prevent the insurgency from reviving – with the implicit threat that if they are not voted in, the insurgency could flare again.

On Thursday in Mosul, a group of Iraqi soldiers and officers held up purple-stained fingers when asked if they'd voted in the pre-election voting Wednesday for security forces. "We voted for al-Hudba because [Atheel Abdul Aziz al-Najaefi] is from Mosul, he's a patriot," one says.

Their Iraqi brigade commander, Gen. Raad Mahmud Abbad, an officer in Saddam Hussein's former army, says he believes that most of his soldiers voted the same way.

Mosul's populist mayor, Zuhair Abdul Aziz al-Araji, a Shiite, says while many in Mosul have been alienated by Iraqi Army's Kurdish soldiers heavy-handed behavior in the city, he is alarmed by al-Hadba's anti-Kurdish rhetoric.

"There are Kurds from Mosul who don't speak a word of Kurdish because they have grown up here – are they going to cleanse all of the Kurds from Iraq?" he asks in his office in a city strung with campaign posters and bristling with security forces. 'It's too early for democracy."

But a wide range of Sunni parties are participating in the elections – some of them at their peril.

"If we sit at home and don't move nothing will change," says Abdul Razak Sultan al-Jabouri, head of the Iraq for Us political front. One of the party's candidates, Muwaffaq al-Hamdani, was shot dead in Mosul in December.

"We have to take action, we have to work and not leave the country. We believe in the country," says Mr. Jabouri.

In Baghdad Wednesday when security forces were allowed to vote, the mood among many of the thousands of policemen and soldiers was upbeat about the potential for change following the polls.

Policeman Hasham al-Qareshi says voting this time is markedly different from the first post-Hussein polls in 2005. "It's not like before. Last time we had too few candidates but now ... we can decide who will be best for the Iraqi people."

Another officer, Ahmed Jawad Qadim, says: "I voted last time, but I was scared because there was no security.... This election will decide Iraq's future."

• Correspondent Tom A. Peter contributed reporting from Baghdad.