Page last updated at 11:37 GMT, Sunday, 1 February 2009

Surge in voting by Iraqi Sunnis

Iraqi man votes in Baghdad on Saturday
Turnout was lower than some had expected

Turnout in Saturday's provincial elections in Iraq was 51%, according to figures from the electoral commission.

This was lower than some had predicted, but Iraqi officials told news agencies turnout had jumped in some mainly Sunni areas which previously boycotted polls.

US President Barack Obama hailed the largely peaceful vote, which he called "an important step forward".

Figures provided to AFP news agency suggest January was the most peaceful month since 2003's US-led invasion.

A victory for all the Iraqis
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki on the polls

In total 191 civilians, soldiers and police were killed, authorities told AFP - down 42% on December's toll, which was at the time itself the lowest figure for three years.

"I consider the toll is due to the efforts of the Iraqi security forces, and the support of the Iraqi people, which helped to keep down the terror," defence ministry spokesman Maj Gen Mohammad al-Askari told AFP.

"This toll is the lowest since 2003," he said.

Sharp rise

Turnout in Saturday's vote was 51% - lower than the 55.7% seen in 2005 polls, the Independent High Electoral Commission said on Sunday.

The figure was lower than some predictions of about 60%.

2003: US appoints Governing Council
2004: Governing Council elects interim government
Aug 2004: National conference elects interim national assembly
Jan 2005: First general elections for transitional national assembly and provincial councils - Sunnis boycott vote
Dec 2005: General elections for first full-term government and parliament
Jan 2009: Elections for provincial councils - key test of security gains
Late 2009: General elections due

But turnout shot up in some Sunni-dominated parts of the country, such as Ninevah province, where it is thought to have reached at least 60% compared with 14% four years ago, Iraqi officials told news agencies.

The elections were held in 14 of the country's 18 provinces, with more than 14,000 candidates competing for just 440 seats.

There was no voting in the three provinces of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of the north and the ballot was postponed in oil-rich Kirkuk province.

Official results from Saturday's polls are expected in a few days' time.

'Taking responsibility'

The first nationwide vote in four years was seen as a test of stability before a general election due later this year.

President Obama said he congratulated the people of Iraq on the smooth-running elections.

"This important step forward should continue the process of Iraqis taking responsibility for their future," he said in a statement.

Mr Obama urged the newly elected councils to "get seated, select new governors, and begin work on behalf of the Iraqi people who elected them".

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki called the polls "a victory for all the Iraqis".

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