Iraq on high alert after election candidates shot dead

Iraqi political parties are beefing up security measures after three Iraqi candidates and two campaign workers were killed yesterday in the run-up to Saturday's provincial elections.


Millions of Iraqis go to the polls this weekend for local elections that mark a major milestone in the country’s troubled history since the 2003 invasion.


The elections will be a major test of both the country’s capacity to evolve into a representative democracy and also of the country’s own security forces to control insurgent activity alone.


Competition is stiff: 14,431 candidates in 14 of 18 provinces bidding for just 440 seats. The vote is decided by proportional representation and voters have a choice among 400 parties.


Ethnic imbalance


Sunni Arabs – who boycotted the 2005 (US controlled) legislative elections – are expected to turn out in force this weekend.


The boycott allowed Kurds and Shiite parties to take control of parliament with seats in many Sunni-dominated towns and cities. This resulted in a strong ethnic imbalance in government that was a principal driver of Sunni insurgent activity.


Nowhere has the absence of the Sunni political voice more apparent than in Mosul, Iraq’s second city in the northern Nineveh province. The city remains a continuing symbol of the US and Iraqi forces’ continuing inability to hold down the activities of Al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups.


For Sunnis living in the city, the problem is dominated by the influence of their northern Kurdish neighbours. Many in Mosul blame the Kurds, who have dominated in local government since the 2005 elections, for the chronic chaos in the city.


Testing ground for autonomy


Saturday’s poll will give some indication of the political landscape in the run-up to parliamentary elections later this year. “Iraqis will be able to see how much support each party has,” reports Lucas Menget, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Baghdad. Iraqis are eagerly awaiting the results of these elections; Nuri al-Maliki’s entourage also want to see how popular he is.


The weekend’s poll will also be a major test for the Iraqi armed forces and their ability to maintain security, ahead of US President Barack Obama’s planned withdrawal of US troops from the country.


In his own election campaign, Obama said he wanted to pull US forces out of Iraq within 16 months, with most of them earmarked for a “surge” in Afghanistan.


So far the security forces have managed to maintain order. The run-up to the elections has been largely peaceful by Iraqi standards – much more so than in 2005.


But at least three candidates and two campaign helpers have been killed in a campaign where it still remains dangerous for candidates to show themselves publicly while canvassing for support.

FRANCE 24’s Lucas Menget, who has been following candidates, said that campaigning for democratic elections is a hazardous occupation.


“On the campaign trail, candidates can't simply step out of their cars to shake the hands of their constituents,” reports Menget. “Security officers voted early, so that 300,000 police and soldiers would be available to prevent any polling-day violence,” he added.

“The campaign is a bit strange – but people are happy that the elections are taking place. There's a sense in the air that the Iraqi people are in charge of their own country again.


“It is a very important moment in Iraqi history because these are the first elections under full Iraqi authority.”


Northern challenges


Despite widespread optimism, the challenging security situation in the north of the country has led to polling in the three northern autonomous provinces of Kurdish regions - Arbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniyah – to be postponed until later this year.


And in the disputed northern oil-rich province of Kirkuk - claimed by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen - the vote has been postponed indefinitely.


The United Nations and Iraq's Independent High Election Commission is organising the elections, with 800 international observers expected to oversee the balloting.


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