Voters defy insurgent attacks to vote in crucial general election

At least 38 people were killed and scores were injured in a series of bomb and rocket attacks in Iraqi cities on Sunday as voters turned out in huge numbers to cast ballots in the country's second parliamentary vote since Saddam Hussein's downfall.


Iraqi voters turned out in force Sunday to cast their ballots in an election which has been marred by a series of bomb and mortar attacks. At least 38 people have died in the run up to the polls.

Polling stations closed at 5 pm local time in the country’s second election since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Robert Parsons, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Baghdad, reports that voting has been intensive. Parsons says that so far it appears that the turnout is higher than in 2005 when Sunni Arabs boycotted the vote to protest the shift in power to the nation's long-oppressed Shiite majority after the US-led invasion.

Iraq votes - the day in pictures

Blasts rocked areas in and around the Iraqi capital, while mortar shells rained down near polling stations in the Sunni cities of Fallujah, Baquba, and Samarra. These attacks came a day after al Qaeda insurgents issued a warning threatening Iraqis who exercised their right to vote.

In the deadliest incident, 25 people were killed when an explosion blew up a three-storey Baghdad apartment block.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told reporters that the insurgent attacks, "are only noise to impress voters, but Iraqis are a people who love challenges and you will see that this will not damage their morale."

Security has been stepped-up across the country, with at least 200,000 police and soldiers deployed in and around Baghdad, and hundreds of thousands more across the country.

This increased police presence does not come without its problems, with Parsons reporting that, “Every 200m, a vehicle is stopped” for inspection causing significant inconvenience to ordinary Iraqis.


Towards a modern democracy

Europe and the United States praised the courage of Iraqi voters for casting their ballots despite the surge in violence.

US President Barack Obama hailed the Iraqi voter turnout saying "I have great respect

FRANCE 24's Robert Parsons reports from a polling place during Iraq elections

for the millions of Iraqis who refused to be deterred by acts of violence, and who exercised their right to vote today."

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that the turnout "reconfirms the commitment of the Iraqi people to a democratic Iraq. It deserves respect from us all."

European Observer Rachida Dati in Iraq told FRANCE 24, "They are taking their destiny in their own hands...they want a modern democracy in Iraq and we have to help them acheive it, " she said on Sunday.

But is it all worthwhile?

Overall, there are about 6,200 candidates from 86 factions vying for just 325 parliamentary seats. No bloc is expected to win an outright majority, and  partial results are not due until Thursday with full results expected on March 18.

The election is seen as an important test for Iraq’s fledgling democracy and will also be decisive in terms of Washington’s plan to start pulling out US troops over the next five months and withdraw entirely by end-2011.

Much has changed since Iraq’s first democratic election in 2005, reports Parsons, not the least of which being that this time around it is a good deal more autonomous.

“This election is run exclusively by Iraqis. In the air, there are American helicopters, but there are also Iraqi helicopters. That’s a significant departure from the past,” Parsons says.

However, it all hinges on how the electorate actually cast their ballots. What the world is eager to find out, said Parsons, is whether there will be a repeat of the 2005 elections, in which Iraqis voted along sectarian lines.

Voters in the ethnically and religiously divided country have a choice between Shi'ite Islamist parties, which have dominated Iraq since Saddam Hussein's fall, and their secular rivals.

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