PM 'certain' of victory as Iraqis vote despite attacks

BAGHDAD, Prashant Rao, Mohamad Ali Harissi- Iraqis defied a rash of attacks that killed 14 people Wednesday and voted in the first general election since US troops withdrew, with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki proclaiming "certain" victory.
Around 60 percent of the country's 20 million eligible voters cast their ballots in the poll, which was hailed by the United States and United Nations as a rebuke to jihadists who sought to derail the parliamentary election.

Ballot counting began immediately after polls closed at 6:00 pm (1500 GMT), but the election commission cautioned that its turnout figure was not final as it was awaiting information from various unstable areas, and preliminary results are not expected until mid-May.
Iraqis complain of myriad grievances, from poor public services to rampant corruption and high unemployment, but the month-long campaign has hinged on Maliki's bid for a third term and dramatically deteriorating security.
Maliki encouraged high turnout and voiced confidence he would stay in power after voting at a VIP polling centre early on in the Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.
"Today is a big success, and even better than the last elections, even though there is no foreign soldier on Iraqi soil," he said.
Maliki called for a move away from national unity governments towards ones of political majority, confidently telling journalists: "Our victory is certain, but we are waiting to see the size of our victory."
In Washington, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Iraqis had "courageously voted," sending "a powerful rebuke to the violent extremists who have tried to thwart the democratic process and sow discord in Iraq and throughout the region."
And the UN's special envoy to Iraq Nickolay Mladenov told reporters in Baghdad that "those who have tried to disrupt the campaign period and election day... have been proven wrong."
The runup to the election, the first parliamentary poll since US forces withdrew in December 2011, has seen Baghdad and other major cities swamped in posters and bunting.
Parties have held rallies and candidates have angrily debated on television, but their appeals have largely been made on sectarian, ethnic or tribal grounds rather than political and social issues.
- Voting despite unrest -
Analysts had expressed fears much of the electorate would stay at home rather than risk being targeted by militants, who killed nearly 90 people over the two previous days.
And fresh attacks were launched soon after polls opened, killing 14 people and wounding dozens, with security officials reporting more than 50 incidents in all.
Among those killed were two election commission employes who died in bombings as they were being escorted by a military convoy in northern Iraq.
Also north of Baghdad, militants seized a polling station and blew it up, after expelling election staff and those waiting to vote.
But many Iraqis said they were determined to vote despite the unrest, voicing disdain for the current crop of elected officials.
"I came to vote for change for my children and my grandchildren, to change the future and the situation of the country for the better," said Abu Ashraf, 67, a retired accountant who declined to give his full name.
"It is necessary to change most of the politicians because they have done nothing, and they spend years on private conflicts," he said after voting in west Baghdad.
Others voiced confidence in Maliki and his Shiite-led government.
"If we are not coming to vote, who is going to come (to power)?" asked Umm Jabbar, who had queued since 6:00 am outside a polling station in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf.
"Will the enemy come? I am voting for Maliki, because he is a thorn in the eyes of the enemy."
More than 750 people have been killed this month, with violence at its highest levels since a brutal sectarian conflict killed tens of thousands in 2006 and 2007.
Militants have controlled the town of Fallujah since the beginning of the year, preventing polling in parts of mainly Sunni Arab Anbar province, west of Baghdad.
Maliki's critics have accused him of concentrating power and marginalising the Sunni minority, and say public services have not sufficiently improved during his eight-year rule.
The 63-year-old contends the violence is fuelled by the conflict in neighbouring Syria and has accused Sunni Saudi Arabia and Qatar of backing insurgents.
Maliki's State of Law alliance is tipped to win the most seats in parliament but fall short of a majority. That means he will have to court other Shiite parties, as well as Sunni and Kurdish blocs, if he is to remain in power.

Thursday, May 1st 2014
Prashant Rao, Mohamad Ali Harissi

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