BAGHDAD – Tens of thousands of police and soldiers, doctors at hospitals, prisoners clad in orange jumpsuits and residents forced from contested towns cast early ballots Wednesday in provincial elections that will redraw Iraq’s political landscape.
Regular voting is scheduled for Saturday to choose the equivalent of state legislatures in 14 of the country’s 18 provinces. But early voting was allowed for certain groups, in particular the security forces, which will be deployed as part of a security clampdown. On election day, the government has ordered a nighttime curfew, the closing of Iraq’s borders and airport, and a ban on traffic in towns and cities.
There was scattered violence Wednesday. Assailants gunned down two policemen in Tuz Khurmatu, 50 miles south of the disputed city of Kirkuk, and a bombing killed a policeman in the northern city of Mosul. But attacks so far have been relatively few compared to the onslaught that preceded Iraq’s first elections in 2005. Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the vote, delivering disproportionate power to Shiite Arabs and Kurds in some provinces.
Lt. Gen. Hussein al-Awadi praised the quieter climate this time and suggested that sectarian tensions – the Sunni and Shiite conflict that wracked Baghdad in 2006 and 2007 – had subsided.
“Today, these feelings have vanished,” he said, his finger stained blue to prevent multiple voting. “Stability is apparent this time, and that was our ambition.”
The three predominantly Kurdish provinces, part of an autonomous region in the north, will hold elections later this year. Voting in the province around Kirkuk, a city riven by competing ethnic claims, was delayed indefinitely.
In the other 14 provinces, where 14,400 candidates are vying for 440 seats on the councils, the elections could bring a new alignment in almost every locale.
The Dawa Party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, his popularity bolstered by the decline in violence, is seeking to chip away at the power of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which controls four of the nine predominantly Shiite southern provinces. Followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric whose men have fought rival Shiites, the army and the U.S. military, are backing lists of nominally independent candidates.