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Iraqi vote expected to bolster Maliki

Early returns from Saturday's provincial polls suggest that the Shiite prime minister's Dawa Party will be the big winner.

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In Baghdad's Sadr City, a stronghold of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, voters seemed to be turning to candidates who are focused on the economy as much as religion.

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The run-down schools across the country that served as most of the more than 6,000 polling sites provided evidence of why six years into the war, Iraqis are demanding governments who can deliver services.

In the northwestern Iraqi city of Sinjar, Bassima Jassim Sharif sat at a battered desk, waiting to register voters just after the polls opened Saturday. With no electricity, a battery-operated lamp cut through the early morning darkness.

"I tried to vote in 2005, but they ran out of ballots," says Ms. Sharif, a kindergarten headmistress who said it was particularly important for women to vote.

"You see this? It isn't fit for animals," says Abbas Zaki, the polling center supervisor and headmaster at another over-crowded school in the area, where more than 1,000 students study in two shifts. At most of the schools, broken windows were taped over with cardboard. In the winter, children study with no heat under leaking roofs.

The area, in an arc of territory under Iraqi government control but which the Kurds claim as part of Iraqi Kurdistan, has a large proportion of Yazidis, an ancient religious community based in northern Iraq who are considered Kurds by the Kurdish parties who court their votes.

At one polling site, dozens of Yazidi women, their hair covered in purple or white head scarves, stood in line across the street from a giant Kurdish flag to enter a brightly colored nylon tent to be searched.

The Yazidis themselves, whose villages were widely destroyed under Saddam Hussein's campaign against the Kurds, are split over whether they consider themselves Kurdish.

"The Kurds are very good to us – they help us with salaries, they provide services," says Khalaf Khatha Khalaf, waiting to vote for the first time.

At several other polling sites visited by United Nations and US State Department monitors, there were few voters. In Tel al-Ghassab, an Arab town near Sinjar, the polling center seemed to have closed for lunch as election workers stopped to eat lamb and rice from aluminum platters. An Iraqi soldier with a rocket-propelled grenade stood outside near a sign advising voters that no smoking or cellphones were allowed.

The election was observed by hundreds of foreign monitors. Stefan de Mistura, the UN special envoy here, says that while there were minor problems, voting across the country generally proceeded smoothly and effectively.

"This is a good day for Iraq's democracy," he says.

The effects are still to be determined, but many Iraqis who did vote Saturday agreed. "It's like a flower," said school principal Adris Murad Ali, holding up his purple ink-stained finger.

• Correspondent Tom A. Peter contributed reporting from Baghdad.