JACKI LYDEN, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Jacki Lyden. While the American economy is still struggling to find a foothold, the nation of Iraq took a major political step today. More than 14,000 candidates vied for 440 seats in provincial elections. Polls are closed now, and little violence was reported. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro spent part of the day in two once dangerous Baghdad neighborhoods. Here's her report.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: There was an extraordinary security effort across the country. 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. For most of the day, vehicles were banned, leaving roads open for children to play impromptu soccer matches, giving much of Baghdad a festive air.
(Soundbite of men talking)
So I'm at a polling center in the vast Shiite slum of Sadr City in Baghdad. It's home to over two million people.
Coffee-table sized Baghdad ballots are stamped and handed over to voters. After an offensive against the followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr here last year, his political base was weakened, so the votes here are up for grabs. Salim Fahad says he will be voting for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's party.
Mr. SALIM FAHAD (Voter): (Arabic spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He gave us safety and helped us change our bad situation, he says. He deserves our vote because he is an honest man, and he's the right man in the right place, he says.
His vote is crucial for Maliki who, as head of a smaller Shiite party, is trying to increase his political support. Other voters, though, said they would were gravely disappointed by the Shiite parties who gained power in the last elections. Even though security is better, they said, corruption and a lack of services made them want to empower a new generation of leaders. Sa'ad Radhi is a tobacco shop owner.
Mr. SA'AD RADHI: (Arabic spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says, last time, my voting was sectarian. This time, I will vote against the sectarian ideology, against those who want to partition Iraq. This time, I'm voting for my country. I will vote for a nationalist party.
(Soundbite of crowd of people talking)
So, I'm now in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Adhimiya, and this is really one of the most important places in Iraq to be today because, of course, in the last elections, the Sunnis boycotted the vote by and large. This is the first time that they have really come out in force to exercise their vote.
Fifty-year-old housewife In'aam Faleh Mahdi says the Sunnis were foolish in the last elections.
Ms. IN'AAM FALEH MAHDI: (Arabic spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says, it was a mistake that we didn't vote. 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, she says.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: 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 says he's not voting for a Sunni party, though. He wants to move beyond the sectarian politics of the past few years.
Mr. IMAD ABDUL LATIF: (Arabic spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says, we want new faces - faces that will serve the country in spite of their sect or religion. The most important thing is that any politician be an Iraqi patriot, efficient and well-meaning.
There were some problems, though. At the voter check in desk in Adhimiyah, many people could not find their names on the voting list, 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. Over two million Iraqis who are refugees were also barred from participating today.
The independent high electoral commission said that it had received some reports of irregularities which it will investigate. The stakes couldn't have been higher today for Iraqis or for the American war effort here. The vote was pretty much free of violence, but the result must be credible and power has to be transferred peacefully between groups before these elections can be declared a success. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.
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