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The crucial vote Saturday, for key posts in 14 of 18 provinces, is likely to test support for the US-backed leadership.
BAGHDAD, Iraq — Polls have closed in Iraq. With security tight, millions of Iraqis cast their ballots for candidates in 14 of 18 provinces. The elections proceeded without violence, with the exception of a few incidents, according to Al Jazeera.
"This is a victory for all the Iraqis," Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said after casting his vote, according to the BBC.
As Iraqis voted, the top United Nations envoy to Iraq warned of difficulties ahead, writing that, "conditions remain far from 'normal.'" Staffan de Mistura, the secretary-general's special representative for Iraq, wrote in an opinion piece in the Washington Post that, “while life here is getting better, the security situation impedes the Iraqi people's efforts to escape the morass they have been in for many years, and it limits what we can all do to help."
Results likely won't be available for several days.
The elections — for new provincial governments — are seen as milestone with the potential to reshape the nation just a month after a new security agreement marked the beginning of a reduced American presence here.
Unlike the last major election in 2005, Sunni Arabs participated in these elections, potentially recasting the balance of power. This year, the most friction remains between the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north and Sunni and Shiite Arabs.
The vote is likely to influence parliamentary elections later this year, potentially challenging incumbents such as al-Maliki, and will place renewed emphasis on restoring Iraq's central services as voters look to newly elected officials to address their needs.
"There is no real (demographic) balance in the central government, and these provincial elections can restore some balance at the provincial level of government," said Abdul Jabbar Ahmad, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. "Now the question is can this local election prevent corruption and restore services."
In the 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces participating in the elections, there are 440 seats up for grabs, including everything from governor slots to provincial administrators. As Iraqis try to strike the balance between central and provincial power, many of these officials will hold substantial sway.
Iraqis will have no shortage of choices when they head to the polls, as there are nearly 14,500 candidates from approximately 400 parties competing for the open seats.
While the Sunnis are participating after their 2005 boycott, the Kurdish question still looms large, and it threatened to delay elections this past fall. A dispute arose over who controlled oil-rich Kirkuk, with both the central government and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region laying claim to it. An agreement was reached and now the three Kurdish provinces and Kirkuk will hold elections on an unspecified future date.
The northern Diyala Province, which is predominately Kurdish but has all three of Iraq's major ethnic groups represented, initially rejected the presence of the Iraqi Army at its 24 polling sites on election day. The Kurds had argued that the Iraqi Army could potentially pressure voters or tamper with election results, and instead wanted their own Peshmerga forces to secure voting sites. After a 40-hour stand-off, it was decided that a joint Iraqi Army-Peshmerga force would secure the ballot boxes, with the help of U.S. forces.
Outside the Kurdish region, in Diyala and elsewhere, the U.S. forces are expected to take on a far smaller role than they did in the 2005 elections. Thanks in large part to a dramatically improved and much larger Iraqi military and police force, U.S. troops have acted mostly in an advisory capacity during the build up to the elections, and on Saturday they will stay on the outskirts of polling areas and intervene only in the event of a major attack.
"In 2005, the elections happened safely in my sector, but we couldn't have controlled it if there'd been a major incident because we didn't have enough battalions here. Now we can control the town," said Mohamed Qadouri Abdullah, an army police captain who worked in the same area of Baquba during the last elections with only eight police battalions. He now has 12.
Aside from playing a far-smaller role, U.S. soldiers who were stationed in Iraq during the last elections said they'd noticed that locals seemed more concerned about the issues at stake, namely the return of central services, than they did about security.
"It was a lot different in 2005," says Yousef Ahmed, an unemployed resident of Baquba. "We couldn't vote because the security was too bad, but now it's different. I'm going to vote, everyone is going to vote."
Still, both U.S. and Iraqi officials remained pragmatic in their assessment of election day security. According to a U.S. army colonel, Burt Thompson, they expected to see a "certain amount of acceptable violence," meaning there would likely be instances of voter intimidation and scattered attacks, but nothing serious enough to stop voting.
"The elections will happen and they will be safe and secure, not that there won't be any incidents, because there will … (but) I don't think that's the true challenge here. The true challenge is post-election," said Col. Thompson, commander of the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team currently stationed in Diyala.
A close result is expected, and a big win by one group or another will likely prompt allegations of fraud and misconduct, which could turn into protests or worse.
Meanwhile, whomever wins will be faced with the daunting challenge of restoring central services to a war-ravaged country, an issue drawing increasing ire from many Iraqis who still live with only several hours of electricity a day, despite improvements in security.
This job will be made more difficult for politicians due to the falling price of oil. Already the 2009 budget has been cut from $79 billion to $53.7 billion, taking a toll on the amount of money available for reconstruction. In the short term, however, budget issues may be helped by many local governments that failed to spend their entire 2008 budget allocation, creating additional cash reserves.
Still, many Iraqis are hopeful that the elections will bring about change. During an early vote for Iraqi security forces on Wednesday, Hasham al-Qareshi, said he was happy with the range of candidates to choose from this year.
"I'm very happy about this election because now the Iraqi people will really decide," he said. "I hope after this election that things get better for the Iraqi people."
Other GlobalPost dispatches from Iraq: