Iraqis went to the polls in large numbers Saturday to vote in the country's first nationwide elections since 2005. Officials said there were no reports of major problems or violence.
Iraqi police, army and the U.S. military were out in force. Polling centers were surrounded by barbed wire — and, in some cases, blast walls. In Baghdad, vehicles were banned for most of the day, leaving roads open for children to play soccer and giving much of the city a festive air.
In the vast Shiite slum of Sadr City, home to more than 2 million people, coffee-table-sized ballots were stamped and handed over to voters.
After an offensive against the followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr here last year, his political base had weakened and votes were up for grabs.
Salim Fahad said he would be voting for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's party.
"He gave us safety and helped us change our bad situation," Fahad said. "He deserves our vote because he is an honest man, and he is the right man in the right place."
Fahad's vote is crucial for Maliki, who as the head of a smaller Shiite party is trying to increase his political support.
Other voters said they were gravely disappointed by the Shiite parties that gained power in the last elections. Even though security is better, they said, corruption and lack of services made them want to empower a new generation of leaders.
"Last time my voting was sectarian," said Sa'ad Radhi, a tobacco shop owner. "This time it will be against the sectarian ideology, against those who want to partition Iraq. This time I am voting for my country. I will vote for a nationalist party."
A 'Mistake' Not To Vote
Residents of the predominately Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah by and large boycotted the last elections. Saturday, they came out in force.
In'aam Faleh Mahdi, a 50-year-old housewife, said the Sunnis were foolish in the last elections.
"It was a mistake that we didn't vote," she said. "We never made such a mistake in our lives, but now this mistake will not be repeated. Last time they scared us; they told us not to go and vote. We were betrayed."
Sunnis are the majority in three of Iraq's 18 provinces. But because of the boycott, they had little say in their local government. That is expected to change this time around.
Imad Abdul Latif said he is not voting for a Sunni party though. He wants to move beyond the sectarian politics of the past few years.
"We want new faces — faces that will serve the country, in spite of their sect or religion," he said. "The most important thing is that he be an Iraqi patriot, efficient and well meaning."
Reports Of Irregularities
At the voter check-in desk in Adhamiyah, many people could not find their names on the voting lists, causing anger and suspicion.
Organizers said it was because only half of the internally displaced in Iraq registered to vote in time, leaving many unable to cast a ballot. More than 2 million Iraqis who are refugees were also barred from participating.
The Independent High Electoral Commission said it had received some reports of irregularities, which it would investigate.
The stakes couldn't have been higher for Iraqis or for the American war effort. The vote was pretty much free of violence. But the results must be credible and power has to be transferred peacefully between groups before these elections can be declared a success.