Ballot count begins in Iraq

Voting was extended by an hour in some areas because of the high turnout, Iraq’s election commission said.

Electoral officials briefly extended voting due to the massive turnout,
which preliminary estimates put at between 60 and 80 percent, higher than in an October referendum, with Sunni Arabs casting ballots in unprecedented numbers.

“Turnout was very strong in all regions, even in Fallujah,” a Sunni city in the rebel Al-Anbar province, senior electoral official Hussein Hindawi said.

The enormous task of counting votes has already begun in some Baghdad
polling stations, with the electoral commission predicting that final results would not be released for about two weeks.

The new parliament will appoint a president and two vice presidents.

The presidential council will then have 15 days to name a prime minister, who has 30 days to form a cabinet with parliamentary approval.

Global leaders hailed the landmark vote, and in Washington the White House called it an “historic day” for Iraq.

Strict security

Strict security was enforced as 15.5 million Iraqis were called to vote for
a four-year, 275-member parliament, with top candidates pledging to restore
stability and pave the way for an exit of foreign troops.

Virtually all Iraq’s 190,000 police and army troops were mobilised amid purported Al-Qaeda threats.

Civilians were banned from carrying weapons and from driving to polling
stations.

Despite the massive security lockdown, four people died in attacks, while
mortar strikes in Baghdad, including one against the fortified Green Zone
claimed by an Al-Qaeda-linked group, wounded four civilians and a US marine.

“This is our day of victory. They will not drive us back to our homes. This is the end of terrorism,” said Safia Mohammed, a Shiite voter reacting to one of the periodic explosions in the capital.

“It’s a national celebration for all Iraqis,” declared President Jalal Talabani, the country’s first Kurdish head of state.

Voting this time was a stark contrast to the January elections, when only a small
number of Sunni Arabs trickled to the polls, leaving them under-represented in
a transitional parliament.

The vote, the third this year, marks a new start following the US-led invasion in March 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein, two transitional governments and the adoption of a constitution in October.

Iraqis, the elderly and infirm included, walked to the polls because of a
vehicle ban aimed at curbing car bomb attacks.

Disabled men in wheelchairs and on crutches joined neighbours to cast their
ballots, with many demanding security and the restoration of public services
such as electricity and water.

In the holy city of Najaf and the port city of Basra, residents celebrated an anticipated victory for the dominant religious Shiite group, the United Iraqi Alliance.

A total of 7,655 candidates and 307 political entities, nearly triple the
number that stood in January, competed for parliamentary seats.

A rare glitch was reported in Fallujah, where some polling stations ran out
of ballots amid a higher-than-expected turnout.

Vice President Adel Abdel Mehdi, tipped by many as the next prime minister,
forecast that “the next parliament will represent all Iraqis.”

One of its primary goals will be to establish stability and allow US-led
troops to return home.

Global Reaction

US President George W Bush hailed Iraq’s historic parliamentary elections as “a major step forward” in building a democracy in the war-torn country and bringing US troops home.

“This is a major step forward in achieving our objective, which is having a democratic Iraq, a country able to sustain itself and defend itself, a country
that will be an ally in the war on terror, and a country which will send such a
powerful example to others in the region, whether they live in Iran or Syria,” he said.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the high turnout clearly showed the Iraqi people wanted the chance to live under a democratic form of government.

British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, arriving for a European summit in Brussels said it’s a great day for Iraq.

The elections were also welcomed in Russia, one of the countries fiercely opposed to the US-led invasion.

Australian voting

In Australia polling booths also remained open for an extra hour to meet a last-minute rush of Australian-based Iraqis seeking to vote in their homeland’s pivotal election.

Ballot boxes in Australia closed at 10pm and organisers hope the turn-out will top the 12-thousand Australian-based voters who took part in Iraq’s 2004 vote for the transitional authority.

Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq in Australia spokesman Kassim Abood says the voter number is not yet known but there was a great turn-out nation-wide.