BAGHDAD, Iraq (BP)–Sunni Muslims turned out in record numbers to cast ballots in Iraq’s second round of democratic elections since an American-led coalition overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003. The peacefulness of the elections highlighted the success of an American military surge and the Iraqi people’s rejection of sectarian violence.
Sunnis boycotted the January 2005 elections, but as much as 60 percent of eligible Sunni voters turned out for balloting Jan. 31 to elect key officials in most of the country’s provinces. Less than 2 percent of eligible Sunnis cast ballots in 2005, according to news reports.
Security for the voting was extremely tight and, despite warnings of violence, only Tikrit — Saddam’s former hometown — saw any outbreaks and that was limited to three mortar shells that caused no casualties, according to London’s Observer newspaper. It was the country’s lowest level of violence in two weeks.
Overall turnout for the election was modest — 51 percent compared to 55 percent in 2005, according to Iraq’s election commission. A security ban on driving vehicles required voters to walk to their polling stations. A spokesman for the electoral commission, Mohammed al-Amjad, said delays in transporting ballots to Baghdad meant it would take two or three days to arrive at final vote tallies.
Projected results indicated Iraq’s main Shiite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, lost support to secular parties and Shiite rivals because many people blame religious parties like the council for inflaming sectarian tensions, according to the Associated Press. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council maintains links to Shiites in Iran. The head of one political party reported that the Iranian consul-general in the southern Iraqi city of Basra had tried to intimidate voters by walking with his armed guards through several polling stations.
Iraqi officials hailed the peaceful balloting as a milestone in Iraq’s transition from dictatorship to democracy.
“The election process will help to stabilize security in Iraq and enforce the law and give us a free and dignified life,” Karbala’s Sheikh Haidar Mizher, told the AP. “Before the invasion there was no sectarianism. All groups were living together. What happened was caused by hidden hands from outside the country. We believe that things will soon be back to the way they were before the invasion.”
The country’s improved security situation gave some residents the courage to vote in spite of threats and intimidation.
“I did not vote the last time because it was too dangerous but this time it is different,” Rajaa Alaa, a housewife in Baghdad’s Adhamiya district, told the AFP news service after she cast her ballot. “The whole family went together to vote because we want peace and I think that this election can bring peace.”
Iraq’s borders were sealed prior to the election, airports were shut down and night-time curfews were imposed to improve the security conditions. Polling stations were heavily guarded.
The election was organized by the United Nations and Iraq’s Independent High Election Commission, with 800 international observers expected to oversee the balloting, the AFP reported. U.S. embassy officials in Baghdad and teams of American civilians helped monitor the balloting as well.
U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters immediately prior to the elections that the United States hoped the Iraqis would have “a free, fair, transparent election, free of violence.”
“We think this is a real important step on the way to Iraq becoming a very mature democracy, so I think it’s something that we should all applaud,” Wood said. “When you look at the violence that took place in previous elections and compare it to what we’ve seen up until now, I think it’s a very positive sign. Iraq has a long way to go, there’s no mistake about it, but we think this is a very, very positive step.”
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Mark Kelly.