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IRAQ: At long last, provincial elections

January 30, 2009 |  8:59 pm

Elections10

Voting has begun in the long-anticipated, much-delayed provincial elections in Iraq, where many of the 14 provincial councils being contested are likely to undergo major changes that should more accurately reflect regional ethnic and sectarian populations. Polls opened at 7 a.m. Iraq time Saturday for more than 15 million people who registered to vote. At stake are 440 seats.

Security, as always, was a major concern despite the country's relative calm in recent months. The thousands of schools being used as polling places were ringed with coils of razor wire days ago, and police began 24-hour guard at them earlier in the week. "We have many important people who may come here to vote, so it has to be well protected," said police Lt. Dhia Khadim on Friday afternoon as he showed visitors around a polling station in Karada, a Baghdad neighborhood that is home to several high-ranking Iraqi officials.

Baghdad, though, is not the area of greatest concern to military and political leaders. They are keeping their eyes on the volatile northern provinces, particularly Nineveh and Diyala. Both provinces' councils — the equivalent of U.S. state legislatures — exemplify the problematic power structures  resulting from the last election in 2005 when most Sunni Arabs boycotted the vote. As a result, the provincial councils there are dominated by Shiites and Kurds, despite their heavy Sunni Arab populations. The lopsided situation has been blamed for fueling sectarian violence that has killed or displaced hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Earlier in the week, two Sunni Arab candidates — one in Diyala and one in Nineveh — were shot and killed by unknown assailants.

The Arab-Kurd tensions in the north have threatened many times to lead to all-out conflict between security forces loyal to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and those answering to the semiautonomous Kurdish regional government. "It's a huge political issue that the parties must come together on," said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Daniel Allyn earlier in the week. "There is huge historical tension there."

Problems in Diyala also are a sign of the ongoing efforts of Al Qaeda in Iraq to revive itself after repeated offensives by U.S. and Iraqi military forces in the area. Diyala is just north of Baghdad and feeds into the capital, making it a desirable spot for the terrorist group to plan and train for attacks on the country's seat of central power.

Final results verified by international observers and the United Nations aren't expected for weeks, but provisional results are expected in about three days.

— Tina Susman in Baghdad

Photo: Campaign posters cover Baghdad's blast walls. Credit: Saad Khalaf

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