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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.

Apart from the military and police voting, which traditionally spikes higher, most officials are expecting a turnout of 50 to 60 percent.

“It’s not a matter of being afraid,” says Nermin al-Mufti, a Kirkuk journalist who is running for office in Baghdad under the Iraqiya list. “In 2005, it was much more dangerous and people went to the polls. This time they will not go that much because they are disappointed.”

Fear is not the issue. It’s disappointment with a parliament widely seen as inept, corrupt and almost completely self-interested.

Elections for provincial councils last year sent a message to religious-based parties particularly in the south, that voters would rather have electricity and clean water than politicians' promises of salvation.

Although Sunday’s vote will have been preceded by the first elections in Jan. 2005, to elect a national assembly, and then voting in Dec 2005, for the first full-term parliament, this is the first election in a fully sovereign Iraq since the U.S. handed over control for security last June.

Sunnis widely boycotted the first two elections, and they are seen almost as practice runs for a national vote in which most Sunnis have realized that the boycott did them more harm than good.

Despite the ban on 80 candidates, including two prominent Sunni politicians, for alleged Baathist ties, that isn’t expected to widely affect the Sunni vote.

“Maybe some people will be angry but at the end everyone will feel that they can’t waste their vote because it is a very important election campaign,” said parliament speaker Ayad al-Samurai, a Sunni.

Al Qaeda has threatened to disrupt these elections and if this weren’t a city used to terrible threats, it might have more effect.

Baghdad has been essentially locked down — with government workers at home on a four-day holiday there’s almost no traffic on the streets. Two hundred thousand police and soldiers not allowed to go on leave patrol the roads. On Thursday, streets around polling stations were closed and normally random searches were stopping every vehicle.

Despite that, a suicide bomber blew himself up at another school in Mansour being used as a polling center, killing three soldiers and wounding dozens more. Another bomber wearing an explosive vest killed four soldiers near a polling center in downtown Baghdad.

Seven others, including four children, were killed and more than 20 others wounded in an apparent rocket attack on the north of Baghdad.

Although the big question for election day is how much violence will there be, perhaps the more important one is what sort of government will take shape after the votes are counted.

Iraq’s political system is fragmented enough that no one party can win the 163 seats needed to form a government on its own. Building a coalition is expected to take weeks if not several months.

With Shiites holding the balance of power as well as forming the majority of the population, the next prime minister will almost certainly be a Shiite, while the role of president — expected to have less power in this government — will go to a Kurd or a Sunni.

The Kurds are themselves divided this time around, with the breakaway Change party doing serious political damage to the Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The Kurds, though, who threw their weight behind Maliki, allowing him to become prime minister, expect once again to be the kingmakers.

“It’s difficult to predict what the results will look like but one point is very clear to me — none of the lists will be able to have a majority so there must be a coalition,” says Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government and head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. “For us we were not going to decide until after the elections what alliances we want to be a part of.”

That decision he makes clear, will be made on the basis of what various parties are willing to offer the Kurds, who see the next four years as their chance to entrench their control of disputed territories and push through a resolution to the disputed city of Kirkuk.

The only thing certain, says one Western official about Iraq’s diverse political players, is that any alliances are possible.