Page last updated at 19:52 GMT, Sunday, 7 March 2010

Bombers fail to derail Iraq's election success

Iraqis at the scene of a collapsed block of flats after a bomb attack in Baghdad
Two blocks of flats in Baghdad were flattened by bomb attacks

By John Simpson
BBC World affairs editor, Baghdad

These elections will certainly be seen as a big success - despite the depressing level of violence, which demonstrates that it is still altogether untrue to suggest that Iraq is now a country at peace.

But it is reasonable now to include Iraq in the world's list of democracies.

This is the second parliamentary election in seven years which has been properly conducted.

The threat to the polls here does not come from government interference with the voting system or the count.

It comes from small groups of extremists - mostly supporters of al-Qaeda, or of the former dictator, Saddam Hussein - who simply cannot accept the democratic process here.

Political weakness

Nevertheless, the system of democracy with which Iraq has been lumbered scarcely helps this process.

A single glance at the ballot paper shows how unwieldy and awkward it is: there are more than 6,000 candidates, from more than 80 parties, chasing a mere 325 parliamentary seats.

The campaign of sectarian killing is beginning to seem like mindless nihilism, rather some sort of clear-cut political strategy

This fragmentation ensures that, whatever the results on election day, there will be weeks, perhaps months, of negotiation before a new coalition government can be formed. And that means more political weakness, and a further drop in the respect in which politicians here are held.

Whether the moderate Islamist Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stays in power, or the more secular Iyad Allawi comes back in, we will not know for some time.

Either way, Shia Muslims will continue to rule this country, and it is not clear how many politicians from the embittered Sunni minority can be induced to join the new government.

The extremists will not end their campaign just because Sunni politicians decide to join the government. But there will be even less support for them among the Sunni population if the new government is genuinely open and inclusive.

Mindless nihilism

The attacks we saw on election day ensure that Iraq is still one of the world's two or three most violent countries. The intensive campaign of sectarian killing is as strong as ever.

A woman votes in Iraq
Iraqis voted in big numbers despite many obstacles

In Shaab, a Shia area of Baghdad, two bombs went off in blocks of flats just as the polls were opening. I watched as dozens of firemen and civil defence workers pulled at the wreckage of a building to rescue people whom we could hear calling out from under the slabs of concrete.

They spotted someone as a lump of masonry fell away, but the foot and hand we could see in the rubble were motionless. The man was dead.

Meanwhile the voice of the woman who had been calling out was getting fainter. She was trapped somewhere on the first floor of the building, and it was difficult and dangerous for the rescuers to reach her.

The first time we realised that they were getting close was when they passed a bottle of water through to her. Half an hour later a shout went up from the crowd of people watching: "Allahu Akbar!" ("God is great!")

They brought her out gently, lowered her to the ground, and put her on a stretcher. Her eyes were open; she seemed to be fully aware of what was going on.

It was a small victory over the ferocity of an attack on entirely innocent people. Yet altogether in Baghdad on election day, at least 35 people have been killed, and 89 injured.

The campaign of sectarian killing is beginning to seem like mindless nihilism, rather some sort of clear-cut political strategy.

Having completely failed to derail the democratic process here, it is hard to see what the extremists can do now. Other than raise the level of violence even more, of course.

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