Baghdad’s streets are quiet the evening before millions of Iraqis head to the polls for parliamentary election.
Weeks ago, the Iraqi government announced a public holiday from March 4 to 8; ordinarily, the city would have been bustling with life as families festoon the parks and public areas.
But today, it seems most Iraqis are choosing to play it safe and stay indoors hours before polls open.
In Baghdad’s historic Karada district, a small number of Iraqis are out shopping in its normally lively markets. Children playing nearby jostle to have their picture taken, while an open bakery continues to churn out fresh clay oven-baked bread.
But there are no customers this evening.
Outbreak of violence
In the run-up to the March 7 poll, political campaigning has been energised – apparently more so than the two previous national polls held since the US-led invasion of 2003 and the ousting of Saddam Hussein.
Elaborate political advertisements played out on local media stations through Thursday, when campaign season officially ended. Campaign banners, posters and fliers for the more than 6,000 poll candidates still paper streets across the country.
But hopes that this would be an election free of violence have already been dashed.
On Saturday, explosions in Najaf, south of Baghdad, and Ramadi, capital of the western Anbar province, killed several people and wounded scores.
This seemed to follow early voting violence on Thursday, when a double-suicide bombing struck as Iraqi security forces, prisoners due to be released soon, and those in hospital voted in Baghdad.
Combined with what police say may have been a katyusha rocket attack at a closed polling stationer earlier in the day, at least a dozen people were killed.
Police officials have also told Al Jazeera that in the past 24 hours, they have already defused bombs planted near 16 polling stations in the Iraqi capital.
Despite the violent outbursts, however, there is no question that the situation on the ground is much more stable than it was in 2005 and 2006, at the height of the country’s sectarian conflict.
Baghdad is instead littered with blast walls, barbed wire, checkpoints and police cordons. And more than 200,000 security forces are expected to be deployed early on election day.
General Nasir Abadi, the vice-chief of staff for the Iraqi joint forces, assures Al Jazeera that all necessary precautions have been taken and underscores the importance for the country of holding free and fair elections.
“Progress will cease in our institutions if we don’t have free elections, freedom of speech and free press,” he says.
“I think the [Iraqi] people understand this … they’ve had enough lies, and they want a change.”
Determined to vote
Baghdad residents agree with him, and despite the dangers, appear determined to vote.
“We [have] left [behind] our days of oppression, and we are embracing democracy,” Abu Haider, a Baghdad resident, says.
“We can talk and express our opinions in this electoral process.”
Hassan al-Jabouri says he will vote for change, because the government simply has not done enough to help him and his seven unemployed sons.
“God knows what will happen, but we’re looking for something better,” he says. “For 50 years we have been very poor, we just want something better.”
Tonight, a curfew comes into effect. After 10pm, the city is in lock-down – no driving will be allowed through to the morning after the election, save for those with special vehicle passes.
Driving back along the Tigris River in the afternoon, the Abu Nawas Park, named after the famously hedonistic Abbasid-era poet, is mostly empty, too.
With an air of change and anticipation hanging above the city, Iraqis appear to be waiting patiently for what tomorrow holds.