Sectarian tensions rise as Iraq votes

Women voters in Baghdad's Karradah district. Left: Polling station guard in Najaf. Picture: Getty
Women voters in Baghdad's Karradah district. Left: Polling station guard in Najaf. Picture: Getty
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Iraqis braved the threat of bombs and attacks to vote in key elections amid a massive security operation yesterday.

Hundreds of thousands of troops and police guarded voting centres in the first nationwide balloting since American troops pulled out in 2011. Scattered attacks still took place north of Baghdad, killing at least three people and wounding 16.

Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has held power for eight years, faces growing criticism over state corruption and persistent bloodshed as sectarian tensions – which pit Shiites against the minority Sunni – threaten to push Iraq back towards civil war. The late dictator Saddam Hussein built his regime on Sunni support.

Mr Maliki, 63, is the Shiite leader of the State of Law party, which is expected to win most seats in the 328-member parliament but to fall short of an overall majority. That would allow him to keep his post only if he can form a coalition.

This will be made more difficult given the divisions with former Sunni Arab and Kurdish allies. Even some of his Shiite backers denounce him as a would-be dictator – but most see no alternative. Mr Maliki also has the support of neighbouring powerhouse Iran, which aides have said will push discontented Shiite factions into backing him for another term.

There are 22 million eligible voters, choosing from among some 9,000 candidates. In central Baghdad, police and soldiers manned checkpoints roughly 500 metres apart, while flat-bed vans with machine-guns on top roamed the streets.

A total ban on vehicles and the declaration of a national holiday kept streets deserted and most shops closed. The ban was put in place to prevent car bombs and speed security force responses by eliminating traffic.

Voters are being subjected to multiple searches before entering polling stations, and surrounding streets are blocked by police vans and barbed wire.

“I decided to go and vote early while it’s safe. Crowds attract ­attacks,” Azhar Mohammed, 37, said as she and her husband approached a polling station in Baghdad’s mainly Shiite Karradah district.

A series of high-profile attacks have killed dozens of people in the days leading up to the vote, including in the north where a police officer jumped on a suicide bomber to protect people from the blast, near a polling centre in Beiji. The officer was killed and 11 people were wounded.

Initial and partial results are expected to start trickling out next week, but it is unclear when the final outcome will be announced.

Mr Maliki rose from relative obscurity to office in 2006, when Iraq’s sectarian bloodletting began to spiral out of control, with Sunni militants and Shiite militias butchering each other’s communities.

Over the years that followed, Sunni tribes backed by the Americans rose up to fight al-Qaeda-linked militants, while Mr Maliki showed a readiness to rein in Shiite militiamen – and by 2008, the violence had eased.

But the Sunni-Shiite violence returned, stoked in part by Mr Maliki’s moves last year to crush protests by Sunnis complaining of discrimination. Militants took over the city of Fallujah in the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar and parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi.

Iraqi army and police forces battling them for months have been unable to take most areas back and voting is not taking place in parts of the vast province bordering Jordan and Syria.

Many Iraqis complain of corruption and the failure to rebuild the economy after years of war following the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted Saddam.

Last year, the death toll in Iraq climbed to its highest since 2006-07. The United Nations says 8,868 were killed in 2013, and about 2,000 were killed in the first three months this year.