A Quiet Election Day In Iraq, With Some Signs For Concern

For the first time since U.S. troops withdrew in 2011, Iraqis went to the polls to vote on their leaders. As Reuters reporter Ned Parker says, the day's events paint a grim future for Iraq's future.

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Under heavy security, Iraqis went to the polls in parliamentary elections today, the first since U.S. forces withdrew from the country in 2011. The capital, Baghdad, was calm and under a vehicle curfew. Central and southern Iraq experienced relative quiet, too. But at least 12 people were reported killed in Election Day violence in parts of the country with large Sunni populations. And across the country, there was low turnout among Sunni voters.

The parliamentary election is largely seen as a referendum on Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. His critics have accused him of fueling sectarian divide, while trying to consolidate power.

Reuters' Baghdad bureau chief Ned Parker joins me now. And, Ned, what has Iraq's Electoral Commission said about overall voter turnout today?

NED PARKER: They said overall turnout was 60 percent. So that's pretty good. Its in-line with the last election, when I believe it was a little bit more than that.

BLOCK: So 60 percent overall turnout. But you would assume that among the Sunni population of Iraq that number would be far lower.

PARKER: One would think so. I've seen informally some figures in Anbar of 15 percent but I couldn't verify those. But the theme coming out from Sunni areas is that the Sunnis are under the thumb of both the insurgents, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is an offshoot of al-Qaida which really wants to control, dominate, terrify the Sunnis, and they're also terrified of the primarily Shiite security forces. So they are in that rock and a hard place. And the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have threatened anyone who goes to vote.

Also, in Anbar Province where there's been fighting since basically end of December, when Prime Minister Maliki sent troops in, because he was trying to show his constituency of Shia that he was tough on terrorism, because Baghdad was getting hit every day by bombings. And the thought was the bombers are coming from western Iraq from Anbar Province, he sent troops in at the end of December. And then there's been fighting ever since. And you have about 425,000 people who've been displaced.

So in Anbar, not that many people are in their homes, some of them have left Anbar to other provinces. So that also cuts into the vote.

BLOCK: Well, they were more than 9,000 candidates today vying for about 300 seats in parliament. Can you give us an overall sense of the parties and platforms who are represented, and who is most likely to win in the end?

PARKER: The predominant tone, tenor of the country's politics now is sectarian. If you're Shia you're trying to show that you're going to protect them from the Sunni terrorists and their neighbors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, et cetera. So Prime Minister Maliki is positioned as the toughest one on the terrorists. The others, whether Muqtada al-Sadr or the other Shiite parties that are religious in nature, they too need to show that they're tough.

The Sunnis are the same. they're trying to show that they've been victimized by the Shia-led government by Nouri al-Maliki. So today, the speaker of parliament, who is the star of the Sunnis, Usama al-Nujaifi, he's made comments about how the Iraqi government has led his people to blood and the sound of bullets, and if this government stays, there's a danger of massacres again. It's a very, very ugly dark scene with very few moderate voices.

BLOCK: And do you expect much of a shift when the results of the election are known?

PARKER: Well, the money is still on to an extent to be Prime Minister Maliki, because he is in the chair. He controls the security forces. He controls the levers of patronage. And to form a government, your need a two-thirds majority in the parliament to pick up a president in a packaged deal that would then bring in the prime minister, and the rough shape of what the Cabinet would look like.

So he's going to have to get to two-thirds of the 328-seat parliament to form a government. But if he can drag out the government formation process, with the fighting going on in different parts of the country, and his ability to split rival politicians who are competing for plum posts, he could do it.

BLOCK: OK, Reuters' Baghdad bureau chief Ned Parker. Ned, thanks so much.

PARKER: Thank you.

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