Iraqis defy threats to vote in their millions

Unprecedented security operation thwarts several suicide attacks at polling stations across the country.

Baghdad, Iraq – Millions of Iraqis voted on Wednesday in elections that were threatened by resurgent rebels but passed off relatively peacefully after an unprecedented security operation was launched for the first poll since US troops left.

In the weeks before polling day, and in a year during which violence has soared across the country, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group promised that it would disrupt voting with a string of suicide strikes and car bombings.

Last week, the rebels looked ready to make good on that threat after they launched a triple suicide attack on an election rally in Baghdad, killing 37, wounding more than 80 and terrifying many.

Days before the poll, the capital was visibly quieter with shops and business shuttered. The government shut down the country’s airspace and a curfew was imposed the night before voting.

There was a heavy presence of soldiers and police outside most polling stations in Baghdad, the roads leading to them were blocked off far from their entrances and voters were searched.

Police sources said that nine people were killed in election-related incidents around the country on polling day, which given the level of violence in Iraq, is a number that will please authorities.

ISIL, which grew from the remnants of a now disbanded al-Qaeda-allied group, has been strengthened by involvement in the war in Syria and it now holds parts of the city of Fallujah, just 65km from Baghdad.

Ordinary Iraqis have increasingly become the targets of attacks by ISIL and similar groups and, according to UN figures, 1700 civilians were killed in the first three months of the year.

‘People enthusiastic’

Several attempts to attack polling stations were thwarted on Wednesday, police sources said.

 Al Jazeera’s Kamahl Santamaria sheds light on polls

In Mosul, 400km northwest of Baghdad, three armed men and a suicide bomber were killed as they tried to enter polling stations in two separate attacks.

In Ramadi, a city where ISIL also control some areas, another suicide bomber was shot by soldiers.

Though the streets looked quiet from early morning and through the day due to a ban on non-official vehicles, a steady stream of Iraqis braved high temperatures to walk to their local polling stations and cast their votes.

An official turnout figure has not yet been released but election officials told Al Jazeera it could be as high as 58 percent.

“People were very enthusiastic for this election,” Ola Kamal, a 54-year-old doctor, told Al Jazeera at a polling station in the Yarmuk neighbourhood in west Baghdad. “They came out for change. You saw handicapped people, old people, out in the hot weather. That shows how eager people were.”

Maliki looking strong

Though many people appeared tense during early voting, as the day passed without major incident in the capital, the streets became busier.

In some of the safer parts of the city, families took children to polling stations, some dressed in the colours of the Iraqi flag and some dipping their fingers in the purple voting ink like their parents.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cast his ballot early at a hotel in central Baghdad and said that Iraqis should come out to vote and give a “slap to the face of terrorism”.

Maliki has a strong chance of securing a third term in office but he faces a challenge.

Though no obvious figure has run as a potential replacement, a wide range of parties – Sunni, Shia, Kurd and secular – are lined up against his Shia Dawa group.

Coalition government is a certainty given Iraq’s fractious politics and Maliki has fallen out with some cross-sectarian colleagues since the last elections in 2010. That, analysts say, means that should he lead a new coalition, it will be more Shia-dominated than before.

Results of Iraqi elections are normally released within two weeks of polling day.

Follow Barry Malone on Twitter: @malonebarry

Source: Al Jazeera