Iraq election begins, under shadow of violence
Iraq's first multiparty polls in half a century began at dawn on Sunday, elections intended to unite the country but which could instead foment sectarian strife and which insurgents have vowed to turn into a bloodbath.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. (11 p.m. EST Saturday) on a chilly, dark morning and were due to stay open until 5 p.m. (9 a.m. EST).
President Ghazi al-Yawar was one of the first to cast his vote, inside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone complex. He emerged with one finger of his right hand stained with bright blue ink, used to prevent voters casting multiple ballots.
He said he hoped all Iraqis would follow his lead.
To try to prevent feared violence, Iraq was under security lockdown. Borders were sealed, airports closed and only official vehicles allowed on the streets after heavy bloodshed on the eve of voting, including a bold rocket strike that killed two Americans at the U.S. embassy compound in the Green Zone.
Insurgents also killed 17 Iraqis and an American soldier in other attacks across Iraq on Saturday.
A suicide bomber struck a U.S.-Iraqi security center in the town of Khanaqin, northeast of the Iraqi capital. The U.S. military said three Iraqi soldiers and five civilians were killed in that incident.
The embassy attack deepened fears of an insurgent blitz on election day and demonstrated their ability to strike at the heart of the interim government and U.S. power in their vast fortified complex on the west bank of the river Tigris.
It could also worsen fears of Iraq's 14.2 million registered voters about casting ballots in the country's first election since Saddam Hussein (news - web sites) was toppled in a U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Iraq's 60 percent-majority Shi'ites, oppressed for decades under Saddam, are expected to dominate the polls. Kurds, who make up nearly a fifth of Iraqis, want a result that enables them to enshrine their autonomous rule in the north.
Insurgent groups, including a jihadist faction led by al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, have vowed to bomb "infidel" polling stations and kill anyone who dares to vote.
"For the last time, we warn that (Sunday) will be bloody for the Christians and Jews and their mercenaries and whoever takes part in the (election) game of America and Allawi," Zarqawi's group said in a statement posted on an Islamist Web site, referring to interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
Many Iraqis promised to brave the threats, but others were afraid of being targeted at voting places or afterwards, worried that the indelible blue ink on their index fingers could mark them for death.
U.S. SEES VOTE AS PIVOTAL
Washington hopes the ballot will help transform Iraq from dictatorship to democracy but it risks worsening the insurgency by further alienating Iraq's 20 percent-minority Sunni Arabs, who formed the backbone of Saddam's ruling class.
Several leading Sunni parties are boycotting the polls, saying the insurgency raging strongest in the Sunni heartlands and the presence of more than 150,000 U.S.-led troops will make it impossible to hold a fair vote.
Majority Shi'ites, long oppressed under Saddam, are expected to cement their newfound dominance. An alliance formed under the guidance of the top Shi'ite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is almost certain to win the most votes.
Even if an alliance of secular Shi'ites led by Allawi does not do well, he is seen as a strong consensus candidate to possibly stay on in office.
But under-representation of Sunni Arabs could undermine the credibility of a new 275-seat national assembly and increase the risk of sectarian conflict.
The campaign unfolded in a climate of such intimidation that most candidates kept their names secret and even the locations of polling places were kept under wraps to the last moment.
Iraq's nascent security forces now face a test of their resolve. Police, Iraqi troops and U.S. soldiers were to be arrayed in concentric circles around more than 5,000 polling places.
U.S. and British forces have been ordered to stand back to avoid the impression of Iraqis voting under occupiers' guns. U.S. troops will have rapid-response teams on standby if needed.
But many Iraqis voiced doubts their security services would be able to protect them when they hardly have been able to protect themselves from insurgents who brand them collaborators.
Under pressure to start bringing U.S. troops home after the election, President Bush said their mission must keep going to help the new government get its footing. "Terrorist violence will not end with the election," he said.
Iraqi officials hope for a turnout of at least 50 percent to lend legitimacy to the outcome. Officials expect preliminary results in six to seven days and final results in about 10 days.