Iraqis Head To The Polls For Provincial Elections

NPR's Scott Simon talks to NPR's JJ Sutherland in Baghdad about the latest news on the provincial elections being held Saturday in Iraq. The elections are considered a crucial test of the nation's stability.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The polls have closed in Iraq without any major violence reported. It's the first time that all ethnic and religious groups have taken part in the voting. Sunnis boycotted the last election in 2005. They were expected to turn out in large numbers today. These elections will decide who controls 14 of the 18 Iraqi provinces. Four of them are not voting today. It's turned into a heated but relatively peaceful political campaign. We go down to the Shiite holy city of Najaf. NPR's JJ Sutherland is there. JJ, thanks for being with us.

JJ SUTHERLAND: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: How did the voting go?

SUTHERLAND: Well, incredibly well according to all Iraqi officials. There were no major reports of violence. There were no major reports of incidents of elections violation. Turnout here in the south was very high. People were - everyone I spoke with was very excited about voting. There was a steady stream of voters, the people - the places I went to. But elsewhere in the south was high, and also - but the Iraqi government is very, very pleased. They've extended the voting for one hour so everyone could get to the polls, but there have been no reports of any problems.

SIMON: And in that area of the country, which of course, as we noted, is mostly Shiite, what are the campaign issues?

SUTHERLAND: The biggest issue here is, there are two major Shiite parties. One which is run by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the other, which is a more religious party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. Now, they're partners at a federal level in a coalition government, and - but at the provincial level they really do have some major differences. The biggest one is that the Supreme Council would like to make a sort of mega-province in the south, which would be very distant from the federal government, sort of like the Kurds have in the north already. And Prime Minister Maliki really wants the central government to be strong here. And so that was the biggest issue.

SIMON: As we noted, Sunnis didn't vote the last time. Many Sunnis are expected to participate this time. What changes might that bring about?

SUTHERLAND: Well, it really changes dramatically in two provinces. One, Diyala Province northwest of Baghdad, because the Sunnis didn't vote, was end up being run by Shiites provincial counsel, even though Sunnis are the majority there. And that also happened in Nineveh Province, except there it was the Kurds. And in Anbar Province, which is all Sunni, only a very small number of Sunnis actually turned out. So this is really going to dramatically change the make-up of those provincial counsels. The Sunnis really have high expectations, now that for the most part the fighting has dramatically reduced, that they can actually get some services and some recognition from the government, which they really feel has been somewhat sectarian in not delivering services to them.

SIMON: And JJ, what do Iraqis see as being at stake in these elections?

SUTHERLAND: Well, I think the what they really feel as being at stake is, what is the future of their country going to be? Is it going to be able to become a democratic country? The elections four years ago in 2005 were far from representative. They were marred by violence. And this is really - and what they've done today is, they've shown they can have an election peacefully. Now the next step is, can there be a transfer of power peacefully? Because I think that in some of these provinces, the parties that are in charge now will no longer be in charge, but there's never really been a peaceful transfer of power here by elections. And so the question is, is this election going to be legitimate? Can it be seen as fair and free? And will those now in power turn over that power to their electoral opponents?

SIMON: NPR's JJ Sutherland in Najaf, Iraq. Thanks so much.

SUTHERLAND: You're welcome, Scott.

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