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.

Alaa al-Marjani/AP
Early voting: Security forces, like these in Najaf, voted Wednesday.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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