Iraq in Lockdown on Poll Eve

Published on
by
The Age (Australia)

Iraq in Lockdown on Poll Eve

by
Jason Koutsoukis

Security forces patrol outside a polling station in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, March 6, 2010, ahead of Sunday's Iraqi parliamentary elections. (AP Photo / Hadi Mizban)

For
only the second time in their country's tangled modern history, Iraqis
go to the polls today to elect a new government. But with more than
6200 candidates competing for 325 seats in the National Assembly,
several months of political horse trading are expected to follow the
vote before a ruling coalition emerges.

Despite
optimism engendered by the expected sight of millions of Iraqis lining
up to choose their own government, whoever ends up prime minister faces
a herculean task in trying to rebuild a country still reeling from the
2003 US-led invasion, which toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, and its
aftermath.

"I'm not confident at all that these will
be the free and fair elections that I had hoped for," said Adnan
Pachachi, a senior Iraqi statesman, who is standing as part of the
secular Iraqiya alliance led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi.
"There have been wide reports of intimidation of voters; there are
certain to be attempts at voter fraud," he told The Sunday Age.

Despite
years of sectarian violence between Iraq's Shiite and Sunni
populations, Mr Pachachi was hopeful people would vote according to
their hearts and minds. "People want to vote for who they think is the
best person capable of rebuilding this country. They don't care if the
person is Sunni or Shiite," he said.

"And if they
are allowed to do that without intimidation or fear, this could be a
watershed moment and an example to the rest of the Middle East."

With
Iraq's minority Sunni population widely expected to participate in
today's elections, unlike in 2005 when they stayed away, international
observers are expecting a turnout as high as 55 per cent.

Campaign
posters and political advertisements adorned almost every street corner
around central Baghdad last night as security forces put the nation
into a virtual lockdown.

All Iraq's international
borders were closed on Friday night and won't reopen until tomorrow.
Travel around the country will also be restricted.

While
opinion polling is considered notoriously unreliable, current Prime
Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition may struggle to hold
on to power.

A recent poll conducted by the US-based
National Democratic Institute showed 43 per cent of respondents had a
favourable view of Mr Maliki; 47 per cent of people polled said they
had a negative view of him. In a last-ditch appeal to voters on Friday,
Mr Maliki emphasised his record in keeping the country together and
reducing the influence of the US, which still has about 115,000 troops
stationed in Iraq.

"We kept Iraq's unity from being
fractured and achieved a high level of security," Mr Maliki said. "Iraq
is no longer an occupied state."

The same opinion
poll indicated surging support for former prime minister Allawi, a
secular Shiite with strong links to the US and who served as interim
prime minister in 2005.

About 54 per cent of voters
said they held Mr Allawi in high regard, the National Democratic
Institute poll said, while 28 per cent said they disliked him.

Part
of Mr Allawi's appeal is that he is seen as a potential strongman with
the ability to hold Iraq's disparate religious and ethnic groups
together.

Speaking on Friday at his home in central
Baghdad, he said he was concerned that 7 million extra ballots printed
by Iraq's electoral commission could be used to rig the vote.

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