Iraqi Election Brought Millions to Polls

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Final results in Iraq's parliamentary election may not be known for two weeks, but early indications show the Shiite tickets doing well in traditional Shiite strongholds, election officials said Friday.

In Mosul, capital of the predominantly Sunni Arab province of Nineveh, indications were that the Sunni coalition came in first, said a representative for the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, Hameed Shabaky.

He said the Shiite governing party apparently came in fourth behind the Sunni coalition, the Kurds and a bloc led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite.

Turnout in what was a mostly peaceful election was overwhelming. Election officials estimated up to 11 million of the nation's 15 million registered voters took part in Thursday's vote, which would put overall turnout at more than 70 percent.

In the Shiite province of Najaf province, as many as 80 percent of the voters cast ballots for the four-year parliament.

So many Sunni Arabs voted Thursday that ballots ran out in some places. The strong participation by Sunnis, the backbone of the insurgency, bolstered U.S. hopes that the election could produce a broad-based government capable of ending the daily suicide attacks and other violence that have ravaged the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Sunni Arabs make up about 20 percent of Iraq's 27 million people, compared to about 60 percent for Shiites.

Difficult times lie ahead, however. The coalition of religious Shiite parties that dominates the current government is expected to win the biggest portion of the 275 seats, but will almost certainly need to compromise with rival factions to form a government.

Although violence was reported light Thursday with only three people killed in bombings around Iraq, police said Friday that five bodies had turned up in the predominantly Shiite north Baghdad suburb of Kazimiyah.

Police Lt. Col. Riyad Abdulwahid said four of the bodies had been shot and were wearing Interior Ministry commando uniforms, a force accused by Sunni Arabs of taking part in the abuse and torture of detainees. The fifth body had been decapitated and was dressed in an Iraqi army uniform, Abdulwahid added.

Heavily armed Iraqi troops transported ballots in transparent boxes to central warehouses in each province, usually after the votes had been counted at polling stations around Iraq. A nationwide vehicle ban remained in effect, and most Iraqis walked to mosques for prayers as they had to polling stations on Thursday.

Streets were generally empty of cars, except for trucks carrying ballots, police, ambulances and a few others with permits.

Many Sunnis said they voted to register their opposition to the Shiite-led government and to speed the end of the U.S. military presence.

"What happened yesterday in Sunni areas and Iraq does not mean that the resistance is getting weaker," said Mohammed Abdelkarim, 42, a teacher in Ramadi, an insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad. "The resistance will not die till the withdrawal of the occupation forces."

Opposition to the American military presence runs deeper among Sunni Arabs, the minority group that enjoyed a privileged position under Saddam, than among any of Iraq's other religious and ethnic communities.

While Sunnis were defiant, Shiites and Kurds seemed hopeful the new government would be more successful than the outgoing one in restoring security.

A common theme, however, appeared to be a yearning for an end to the turmoil that has engulfed Iraq since the U.S.-led coalition invaded in March 2003 to topple Saddam's regime.

Officials said it could take at least two weeks until final results are announced.

Insurgent groups, as promised, generally refrained from attacks on polling stations. In Ramadi, masked gunmen provided by local sheiks guarded polling stations, frisking voters as they entered.

President Bush called the election "a major step forward in achieving our objective." U.S. officials hope a broad-based government will be able to quell the bloodshed so that the United States can begin to bring troops home next year.

A successful election followed by an effective, broad-based government would also give the Bush administration a significant victory in its campaign to spread democracy through the Middle East. But many Shiite politicians have little interest in concessions to Sunnis on their key demands, including a greater share of power and allowing a role for Saddam loyalists in public life.

As a result, negotiations to create a new government — including a prime minister — could drag on for weeks just as they did following January's election, when many Sunnis stayed away from the polls because of threats of violence or to honor boycott calls. Another prolonged political struggle might worsen sectarian tensions.

Still, Iraqi leaders expressed relief that the election had passed relatively smoothly and U.S. officials saw the lack of violence as an encouraging sign.