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Page last updated at 21:04 GMT, Sunday, 7 March 2010

Iraq parliamentary election hit by insurgent attacks

Residents gather at the scene of a blast which destroyed a building in northern Baghdad, 7 March 2010
Iraqis hope the election will lead to reduced violence

Iraq's second parliamentary election since the 2003 invasion has been hit by multiple attacks, with at least 35 people being killed.

Two buildings were destroyed in Baghdad and dozens of mortars were fired across the capital and elsewhere.

Despite the violence, there were long queues of voters at polling stations in a number of cities.

Polls closed at 1700 (1400 GMT) but people already in line were allowed to cast their votes.

An immense security operation was mounted, involving more than 500,000 Iraqi security personnel.

The border with Iran was closed, thousands of troops were deployed, and vehicles were banned from roads.

I am not scared and I am not going to stay put at home
Baghdad voter

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki had called on voters to turn out in large numbers, saying that participation would boost democracy.

In Washington US President Barack Obama hailed an "important milestone in Iraqi history" and congratulated Iraqis on their courage.

"Today, in the face of violence from those who would only destroy, Iraqis took a step forward in the hard work of building up their country," he said.

Multiple attacks

There were mortar, grenade and bomb attacks in Baghdad and in other cities, including Mosul, Falluja, Baquba and Samarra.

AT THE SCENE
BBC correspondent Hugh Sykes
By Hugh Sykes, BBC News, Iraq

In a small village near Ramadi in Anbar province west of Baghdad, 300 of the 400 people on the electoral roll had already cast their vote by mid-morning.

It was like a party - hugs, smiles and animated conversations. Many parents brought their children with them. No sign that anyone had been intimidated by threats from al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Far to the south, in the holy city of Najaf, a similarly festive - and defiant - mood. The corridors of a Najaf school echoed with a babble of happy chat.

Three small boys crowded round their dad as he cast his vote, and then - like him - they dipped their fingers in the purple ink.

And a student of English, Zaid Mirza, said he had voted "for change, and new faces".

But the capital was hardest hit, with dozens of mortar shells falling in several neighbourhoods. Twenty-five people were killed in one explosion that destroyed a residential building in the north of the city.

Despite the attacks, turnout was reported to have been steady in Baghdad and elsewhere.

Queues were also reported at polling stations in Sunni areas of the country, where many people in 2005 decided not to vote.

The election took place against a backdrop of much-reduced violence, with casualty figures among civilians, Iraqi forces and US troops significantly lower than in recent years.

But hundreds of people are still being killed each month, corruption is high and the provision of basic services such as electricity is still sporadic.

Islamic militants had pledged to disrupt the voting process with attacks - a group affiliated to al-Qaeda distributed leaflets in Baghdad warning people not to go to the polls.

'Important choice'

Candidates from 86 factions were vying for 325 parliamentary seats, with some 19 million Iraqis eligible to vote.

IRAQI GENERAL ELECTION
Voting to elect 325-member parliament.
About 19 million eligible voters out of 28 million
Around 6,200 candidates from 86 factions competing
200,000 security personnel on duty in Baghdad
Key issues: Security, services and disqualification of alleged Baathists
Previous votes: Jan 2005 (transitional national assembly), Oct 2005 (constitution), Dec 2005 first post-invasion parliament, Feb 2009 (local elections)

Despite Sunday's attacks, Iraq's independent electoral commission said only two of 50,000 polling stations across the country had been closed for short periods due to security concerns.

In Azamiyah (northern Baghdad), Walid Abid, 40, cast his vote to the crumple of mortars exploding not far away.

"I am not scared and I am not going to stay put at home," said the father-of-two.

"Until when? We need to change things. If I stay home and not come to vote, Azamiyah will get worse," Associated Press news agency quoted him as saying.

The previous election, in 2005, saw Mr Maliki become prime minister with Shia Muslim parties dominating the legislature.

Graph showing civilian casualties in Iraq from 2003 to 2010

President Jalal Talabani was among the first to vote on Sunday in Suleimaniya, and said the election marked both a step, and a test, on Iraq's march to democracy.

In a rare public appearance, radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, speaking in neighbouring Iran, urged Iraqis to vote and to reject violence.

Test for democracy?

Iraq's last elections were in February 2009, when voters chose local representatives.

Sunday's elections are being seen as a crucial test for Iraq's national reconciliation process ahead of a planned US military withdrawal in stages.

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The BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse reports from a polling station in Baghdad

US President Barack Obama plans to withdraw combat forces by the middle of this year and all US troops are expected to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011.

Correspondents say Prime Minister Maliki looks likely to retain power at the head of his Shia-led coalition.

The key will be whether Mr Maliki can bring Iraq's embittered Sunni minority into his government and make them feel they have a stake in Iraq's political future again.

Expatriate votes cast in Jordan and Syria could play a deciding role in a tight election race, counting for around 10 seats.

There was a reportedly high turnout, with estimates suggesting 800,000 people cast ballots.



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