Election Violence Tests Iraq's Fragile Democracy

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Insurgents in Iraq had vowed to disrupt Saturday's parliamentary election, and as the voting began they launched a wave of attacks in Baghdad and other cities. At least 24 people have been killed and scores have been wounded. Host Liane Hansen speaks with NPR's Quil Lawrence from Baghdad on nationwide parliamentary voting in Iraq.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Insurgents in Iraq had vowed to disrupt today's parliamentary election. And as the voting began, they launched a wave of attacks in Baghdad and other cities. By the end of the day, as polling stations closed, at least 38 people had been killed; scores were wounded.

NPR's Baghdad bureau chief Quil Lawrence is covering this story. He joins us on the line from the Iraqi capital. And Quil, now that the polling has ended, can you assess today's vote?

QUIL LAWRENCE: It was, I'd say, a mixed bag at the start. We had a string of mortar fire and car bomb explosions that was really the most we had heard in a single day for, I would have to say, years here. At one point, we counted maybe 20 explosions inside 30 minutes. The death toll seems surprisingly small so far, considering the number of bombs we heard.

But then when we got out to the polls, we saw a steady turnout. Maybe it might've delayed people leaving their houses for an hour or two, but when I talked to people at the polling stations, they were defiant. They said, I'm going to come out regardless. I'm coming out here because of the explosions. The people who set these off can go to hell - is what one voter told me.

HANSEN: I understand you visited a Baghdad neighborhood earlier today. The attacks started earlier today. And it was the site of one of today's mortar attacks. What did you see?

LAWRENCE: It was a really terrible scene. This entire apartment building had come down by a rocket or some sort of explosion - we couldn't really figure out. But it looked like an earthquake scene. And Iraqi rescue workers were pulling off rubble and bodies. They had a bulldozer and a crane working. And we could hear someone still trapped inside the rubble, trying to get out. They were working furiously to try and free this woman inside the rubble.

I spoke to a police officer there, who said that he had left for a patrol before dawn with his entire family inside that building, asleep. And when he came back, they were all presumed dead. He said he had given up, and he didn't care about the election anymore. I spoke with another family member, someone who had lost two people inside the apartment building, and he said the opposite. He said that these people who did this were trying to destroy Iraq's election, and I'm voting anyway.

HANSEN: So the attacks, the effect on the turnout was people turned out anyway, and the mood was rather defiant at the polling stations, as you said. The election is being seen as a critical test of Iraq's young democracy. It's seven years after the U.S.-led invasion toppling Saddam Hussein. Now, voters have cast their ballots. Is it possible to explain what happens next?

LAWRENCE: Yes, they were already counting ballots. We've seen them taking them out of the boxes, and sorting them by party slate and by individuals. We're hoping to have some preliminary results tonight. And a certified result is going to wait - probably until the end of the month, after there are any challenges. And then a long process of horse trading begins.

Last time, it took the Iraqi political parties five months to hammer out a deal about who would become the prime minister. So this is hardly over. But we are finally expecting some concrete results so that party members can stop claiming the sway they have over the Iraqi population. And they'll actually put all their cards on the table, and then the real bargaining will begin.

HANSEN: The polls have closed in Iraq's parliamentary election today, and NPR's Quil Lawrence joined us on the line from Baghdad. Quil, thank you very much.

LAWRENCE: Thanks very much, Liane.

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