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Iraq's election: This time it's for real

After three tortured attempts, Iraqis turned out this time to elect the right mix in parliament.

Iraqi policemen line up to vote in the country's parliamentary elections on March 4, 2010, in Baghdad. Special voting for about 790,000 Iraqi prisoners, hospital patients, doctors and security force members were held in Iraq ahead of the parliamentary elections. At least 17 people were killed in a string of attacks targeting special voting polling stations. (Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty Images)

BAGHDAD, Iraq — A row of policemen line up outside a school classroom in the Mansour district of Baghdad to vote, the younger ones almost as high-spirited as the schoolchildren who are normally there.

It’s Iraq’s fourth election since the toppling of Saddam Hussein ushered in this hybrid democracy. This one is perhaps the first in which the point is not so much that Iraqis are voting, but rather who they will actually elect.

“Last time, I wanted to vote with my blood but they wouldn’t let me,” says Hussein Jalil, a 23-year-old police commando who is voting again for Ayad Allawi and his Iraqiya coalition.

Jalil, voting on the day set aside for Iraqi security forces, insists he was serious about wanting to mark his ballot with more than blue ink. He’s never met the one-time prime minister and former U.S. ally but he’s seen a lot of his convoy.

“He’s the only one who goes out in the streets to make sure the police are OK,” he says.

On Sunday, for the first time in a parliamentary election, Iraqi voters can cast their ballots not only for the party lists but for individual candidates.

In a society like this where personal relationships are everything, it seems part of the reason why the polling sites for police and the army are packed.

“Every single one of my men voted,” says police colonel Bassim Saidi. He said the 48 of the 393 who didn’t find their names on the ballots were given permission to come back — forestalling the usual allegations of fraud.

“This election is much better than the previous ones because in those ones you couldn’t choose a candidate,” he says.

The policemen, walking down the dusty road to the battered school to vote, seem split between Allawi and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who polls are showing as the main front-runners. This isn’t Allawi’s first run. Appointed by the American occupation authorities as transitional Iraqi leader, he failed to get a single seat in the elections four years ago.

But in a country desperate for a strongman and disenchanted with religious parties, the secular Allawi whom some persist in believing has personally shot political rivals, seems to many the right man for the job.

At the polling site, the policemen voting seemed unfazed by bombings in Baghdad on Thursday which killed five people and wounded almost 40 others — it's become almost part of the backdrop of day-to-day life here. In one of the attacks, an Iraqi Army captain died after stopping a suicide bomber near a polling station, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.

The battered Iraqi capital is a far cry from the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya where overzealous campaigning fueled by alcohol and accompanied by gunfire led to a ban on late-night campaigning last week. But the city is awash in political posters and political events that have tried but largely failed to create a sense of excitement among ordinary voters.