Iraqis defied a rash of attacks that killed seven people to vote Wednesday in the country’s first general election since US troops withdrew, with premier Nouri al-Maliki proclaiming “certain” victory.
Fresh attacks were launched soon after polls opened on Wednesday morning, killing at least seven people and wounding 24.
Two roadside bombs in northern Iraq killed two employees of the country’s Independent High Electoral Commission and injured two security officers, an army general told AFP.
Security officials reported more than 40 attacks in total, including mortar fire, roadside bombs and a suicide blast, all targeting polling stations or voters on their way to them in northern and western Iraq.
North of Baghdad, militants seized a polling station and blew it up, after expelling election staff and those waiting to vote.
Long queues formed from early morning at tightly-guarded election centers despite a spate of attacks in recent days on polling booths and campaign gatherings.
Iraqis have a long list of grievances, ranging from poor public services to rampant corruption and high unemployment, but the month-long campaign has centered on Maliki’s bid for a third term and a dramatic deterioration in security.
Maliki encouraged voters to turn out in large numbers, and voiced confidence that he would return to power after casting his ballot at a VIP voting center set up in the Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone.
“Today is a big success, and even better than the last elections, even though there is no foreign soldier on Iraqi soil,” the premier said.
He called for a move away from national unity governments to ones of political majority, and confidently told journalists, “Our victory is certain, but we are waiting to see the size of our victory.”
The run-up to the election, the first since US forces departed in December 2011, has seen Baghdad and other major cities swamped in posters and bunting.
Parties have staged rallies and candidates have angrily debated on television, though appeals to voters have largely been made on sectarian, ethnic or tribal grounds rather than the issues.
A surge of violence in the run-up to the polls, including militant attacks in the past two days which killed 90 people, had spurred fears that much of the electorate could stay home rather than risk being targeted.
But many Iraqis said they were determined to vote, voicing disdain for the current crop of elected officials.
“I hope that there will be a better government,” said Hassan Hashim Abdulbaqi, a 65-year-old elector who cast his ballot in central Baghdad along with his wife.
“In the past we gave our votes to others, but it was for nothing. We came here so that our votes do not go to waste. We are looking for a change towards the better.”
“I came to vote for change for my children and my grandchildren, to change the future and the situation of the country for the better,” said Abu Ashraf, 67, a retired accountant who declined to give his full name.
“It is necessary to change most of the politicians because they have done nothing, and they spend years on private conflicts,” he said after voting in west Baghdad.
Nearby, 19-year-old student Nour Raad said she had voted “to change the politicians, because most of them have not worked to improve the situation.”
“We voted according to our sect and this sectarianism will ruin Iraq,” said Abu Sajjad, a taxi driver. “If Maliki will be reelected, Iraq will be destroyed and things will get worse.”
Others, however, voiced confidence in Maliki and his government.
“If we are not coming to vote, who is going to come (to power)?” asked Umm Jabbar, who had queued outside a polling station in the city of Najaf since 6:00 am.
“Will the enemy come? I am voting for Maliki, because he is a thorn in the eyes of the enemy.”
More than 750 people have been killed this month, with unrest at its worst since Iraq emerged from a brutal internal conflict that left tens of thousands dead in 2006 and 2007.
Militants have controlled the town of Fallujah west of Baghdad – the site of major battles during the insurgency against US-led forces – since the beginning of the year.
Parts of restive Anbar province, where Fallujah is located, will not be voting.
Maliki’s critics have accused him of consolidating power and marginalizing minority Sunnis, and say public services have not sufficiently improved during his eight-year rule.
The 63-year-old, who hails from Iraq’s Shia majority, contends the violence is fueled by the civil war in neighboring Syria and has accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of backing insurgents.
He has also complained that his national unity government is made up of groups who snipe at him publicly and block his legislative efforts in parliament.
One bright spot during his time in power has been a significant expansion of oil production. Iraq exported as much as 2.8 million barrels of oil per day earlier this year, though voters complain that much of the windfall is lost to corruption.
Maliki’s State of Law alliance is tipped to win the most seats in parliament but fall short of a majority. It will face stiff competition in central and southern Iraq from a bloc loyal to powerful cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and another party seen as close to Iran.
Sunni- and Kurdish-majority areas in the north and west are expected to see parties with strong communal or ethnic appeal do well, but no major party has made a concerted effort to win votes nationwide.
And though Maliki faces significant criticism, analysts say a fractious and divided opposition leaves him the frontrunner to retain the top job.
Voting, which began at 7:00 am was to continue to 6:00 pm, as upwards of 9,000 candidates compete for 328 parliamentary seats.
(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)