Large voter turnout marks Iraqi election

`Now the hard part of democracy comes'


BAGHDAD, IRAQ -- Iraqis across ethnic, sectarian and religious divides voted in droves yesterday in a high-stakes election that could determine the course of the nation and the success or failure of the U.S. effort to promote Western-style democracy in the Middle East.

In Baghdad, Mosul and Basra, and in tiny hamlets along river valleys, in the Kurdish north, the Shiite south and the Sunni Arab west, voters sensed the day's gravity and packed the polling places, dipping their fingers in purple ink after casting ballots for a full-time 275-seat legislature.

"May God protect Iraq and Iraqis," voters in the Sunni city of Fallujah chanted as trays of rice and meat were carried into the election center, compliments of a local sheik with tribal ties to the insurgency.

Yesterday's election, the third nationwide vote in 11 months, will decide the composition of the legislature that will form a four-year government, the country's first permanent administration since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Its results will determine how much and how quickly Iraq will move toward a federal system with several semi-autonomous regions after decades under Hussein's dictatorial Sunni-dominated central government. It will also decide how much it will adopt Islamic principles after decades of secular rule and whether it will move closer toward Shiite Muslim-led Iran to the east or pro-U.S. Arab regimes to the west.

U.S. officials hope the vote will stabilize the country and allay domestic fears that Iraq has turned into a political and military quagmire with no foreseeable end.

"There's a lot of joy as far as I'm concerned in seeing the Iraqi people accomplish this major milestone in the march to democracy," said President Bush at a White House meeting with Iraqi expatriates. "I believe freedom is universal. I believe the Iraqi citizen cares just as much about freedom and living a free life as the American citizen does."

In Iraq, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, said the American people are watching the election and post-election period closely, knowing that a harmonious and inclusive Iraqi government is a step toward bringing U.S. troops home. He issued what he said was a challenge to Iraqi politicians to rise above sectarian tensions and petty rivalries that hindered the formation of an interim government after January's vote and also surfaced later during the drafting of a national constitution.

"After the elections, [the American people] will be looking to see what's next. Will the country come together, or will it fall apart?" said Biden, after visiting a polling station in the southern city of Hillah. "Now the hard part of democracy comes. After you choose the leaders, are they going to be able to come together?"

The top U.S. commander in Iraq said yesterday that voter turnout in the largely Sunni province of Anbar "increased fairly substantially" over the October levels. Gen. George W. Casey also said he expects the insurgency will "gradually reduce as the root causes of the insurgency are addressed."

Even with yesterday's balloting, however, Casey predicted continued violence and political turmoil as Iraqis work to forge a new government. During the first six months of 2006, Casey said, he expected "fairly divisive" fights over amending the Iraqi constitution and the issue of federalism for Iraq's main ethnic groups.

Though final results won't be available for days, the election might well be remembered as one that cemented Iraq's new political status quo. A big Shiite religious bloc with clerical backing is likely to take the most seats. The Kurds, with at least 20 percent of the votes and seats, will maintain their grip on Kirkuk and on ministries in Baghdad.

Ayad Allawi, the great secular hope for U.S. and Iraqi liberals, is likely to dash expectations again by falling short in the popular vote. And the minority Sunnis, once they find that having a parliamentary platform won't mean they can simply boot out American troops, are likely to remain angry and resentful.

Election officials estimated that between 10 million and 11 million of Iraq's 15.5 million registered voters turned out, equal to or more than the turnout during the October constitutional referendum.

With a strong Iraqi government security presence, violence was low compared with the country's daily bloodshed. There were five known deaths caused by insurgent attacks. An attack on a polling site west of Kirkuk left two police officers dead after a 30-minute gunfight, a police official in the oil-rich northern city said. A roadside bomb near Baqouba northeast of Baghdad killed one and injured four.

Mortar shells killed a civilian, and additional mortar rounds fell on the capital and Mosul, injuring several people, including a 7-year-old girl in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood. A school guard in Mosul was also killed in an insurgent attack yesterday.

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