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Peace and quiet mark Iraq polls

By Andrew North
BBC News, Baghdad

Polling station in Basra on Saturday
The security services were out in force, but all was quiet

There was none of the same election fever of 2005, when voters emerged proudly from polling stations with purple-ink stained thumbs.

And turnout appears to have been on the low side, except in Sunni areas where many were voting for the first time.

But Saturday's provincial elections were memorable for another reason - how peacefully they passed off.

Iraqis I have spoken to say it was one of the quietest days they can remember since the US-led invasion of 2003.

There was just one reported incident in Baghdad, an accidental shooting. Two years ago, attacks were running at more than 100 a day.

Relaxed

Remembering those days of endless gunfire and explosions, it felt strangely quiet on Saturday.

The atmosphere was almost festive - families looking relaxed and happy as they walked to the polling stations because of the ban on vehicles.

children play soccer close to a blast wall plastered with election posters in central Baghdad on Saturday
Iraqi children enjoyed the empty streets
Those empty streets made perfect open-ended football grounds for groups of young boys, using bollards and barriers set up by the security forces as goal posts.

With an election pass for our vehicle, we could drive between different polling stations - but often had to dodge youngsters charging into the road chasing a ball.

Things were not so active, though, at the polling stations I visited. At one in west Baghdad, officials told us it had been much less busy than during the last elections in December 2005.

It all looked well organised. Classrooms had been cleared of their furniture to make way for voting booths.

Large, well-printed posters explained each stage of the voting process.

Nonetheless, some voters still had trouble finding their preferred party and candidate on the giant coloured ballot sheets for Baghdad.

In the capital, 150 parties and nearly 2,500 candidates were in the running for 57 provincial council seats.

The queues of voters were a little thin, but despite that, Iraq's new army and police were out in force.

Back seat

They say this is the largest security operation they have yet mounted, with even the tiny Iraqi air force apparently involved to provide video surveillance.

Across the country 500,000 soldiers and police were reportedly deployed, virtually the entire force.

There were a few American patrols out in Baghdad during the day, but they were taking a back seat this time.

And it looked like every Iraqi unit had been called out. At one polling station, we found a unit of Iraqi special forces - with noticeably better equipment than regular army soldiers - were in charge of security, searching everyone going in.

The fact Saturday's vote passed off so smoothly will be seen as a further sign of the progress Iraq's security forces have made.

But the calm may also be simply because those insurgents and other groups still fighting had decided not to strike.

Eight candidates were killed in the run-up to the vote and, although the violence has fallen dramatically, Iraq is still a dangerous place.

Saturday was a promising sign that the country is on the road to stability, but it is not there yet.

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