Millions of Iraqis voted in provincial elections on Saturday in a crucial test for a nation struggling to emerge from years of sectarian strife and to strengthen its fledgling democracy.
Security for the country’s first ballot since 2005 was extremely tight with Iraqi police and military deployed in force as part of ramped-up measures aimed at preventing militant attacks and turnout was forecast to be high.
Only a few incidents of violence marred what was otherwise a peaceful vote which wrapped up at 1500 GMT, an hour later than planned.
About 15 million people were eligible to vote to elect councils in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Results are expected to start rolling in on Tuesday.
Turnout is being closely watched, particularly among minority Sunni Arabs who massively boycotted the last parliamentary elections in 2005.
“This is a victory for all the Iraqis,” Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said after casting his ballot in the highly-fortified Green Zone in Baghdad.
He said an expected high turnout will be an indicator of “the Iraqi people’s trust in their government and in the elections” and “proof that the Iraqi people are now living in real security.”
Security has much improved in recent months, but insurgents still mount attacks on civilians and security forces, especially in the mainly Sunni Arab areas of Diyala province and the northern city of Mosul.
“The people are afraid to come to vote because of the terrorists, but I came to vote to show to the people that they don’t have to be afraid,” said Mushtar Jabar, a 32-year-old taxi driver in Baquba, the capital of Diyala.
Sargun Hanna, 53, a Christian in Hamdaniyah, a town near Mosul, said she had not inteded to vote but changed her mind.
“I did not intend to go to give my vote, but I came today to send a message to the terrorists who attacked Christians — we want to tell them that we are citizens of Iraq.”
Saturday’s election is seen as a key test of Iraq’s steadily improving security and political system as US President Barack Obama looks to redeploy American troops to Afghanistan, with a target withdrawal date of end-2011.
“Obviously the president will watch the results, and believes that the provincial elections this weekend mark another significant milestone in Iraq’s democratic development,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Friday.
Authorities sealed Iraq’s borders, shut down airports and imposed transport bans and night-time curfews as part of a massive security lockdown for the election.
But six policemen and a civilian were injured in a bombing in the mainly Shiite Turkmen town of Tuz Khurmatu north of Baghdad, while in Khanaqin in Diyala hundreds of Kurds stormed an election office demanding to vote.
And in the Sunni Arab town of Tikrit, the hometown of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, four flash bombs exploded near several polling centres, but police said there were no casualties.
About 800 international observers oversaw the ballot.
More than 14,400 candidates are standing for 440 seats in councils, which appoint the provincial governor and oversee finance and reconstruction, with a combined budget of 2.5 billion dollars.
Sunni Arabs were expected to turn out in large numbers in a reversal of the 2005 parliamentary elections they boycotted, then still angry about the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam.
The UN special envoy to Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, visited the former Sunni rebel bastion of Anbar and the Shiite holy city of Najaf to see first hand how voting was going.
The vote is also seen as a quasi-referendum on Maliki, who has emerged in recent months as a stronger leader promoting a secular agenda in response to sectarian strife that tore Iraq apart after the US-led invasion.
Voting is not however taking place in the three autonomous Kurdish provinces — Arbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniyah — and elections have been postponed in oil-rich Kirkuk, which the Kurds want to incorporate despite fierce opposition from the central government.