- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2010

President Obama on Sunday praised Iraqis for successfully holding their third democratic election since U.S. forces invaded the country in 2003, as millions cast votes amid election day violence that killed at least 36 people.

“I have great respect for the millions of Iraqis who refused to be deterred by acts of violence, and who exercised their right to vote today,” Mr. Obama said at the White House. “Their participation demonstrates that the Iraqi people have chosen to shape their future through the political process.”

In Baghdad, Rep. Debbie Riddle, a Republican state representative from Texas who served on a bipartisan group of election monitors called the National Foundation of Women Legislators, said Iraqi voters braved bombings and gunfire to vote.

“The important thing about the election was the tenacity and the courage of Iraqi people in going out to vote, even though there were bomb blasts going off,” Ms. Riddle said in a telephone interview.

One Iraqi woman told Ms. Riddle that casting her ballot was a statement that she was not going to allow anyone to deny her the right to vote.

Voters lined up outside polling stations throughout Baghdad and were searched by security officers as they entered.

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Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission said voter turnout was estimated to be 50 percent or more in all but one of the 16 provinces for which statistics were available.

Ballots were being counted Sunday night, and final tallies not expected until March 18.

Diplomats have said Iraq is unlikely to be able to form a government for several months as no single voting bloc is likely to emerge dominant.

Abbas Hussein, his index finger coated in purple ink, signaling he had voted in Mansour, a Sunni district of Baghdad, told Agence France-Presse: “We don’t care about the bombs. The people will vote.”

Mr. Obama praised Iraqis for their courage.

“We mourn the tragic loss of life today and honor the courage and resilience of the Iraqi people who once again defied threats to advance their democracy,” he said.

Mr. Obama said hundreds of thousands of Iraqis served as poll station workers and as observers at nearly 50,000 voting booths across Iraq.

Iraqis in the U.S. voted in Arlington, Va.; Chicago; Dallas; Dearborn, Mich.; Nashville, Tenn.; Phoenix; San Diego; and San Francisco.

Election-related violence included a bomb attack against a polling station, hand-grenade bombings, rocket-propelled-grenade attacks and mortar strikes in the Iraqi capital.

The attacks were part of efforts by insurgents to disrupt the elections by intimidating voters.

The election took place as Iraqis seek to overcome widespread sectarian violence prior to the drawdown of U.S. forces. The Pentagon is planning to cut the number of U.S. troops in Iraq from the current level of about 96,000 to 50,000 by August.

Iraqi politics has been marked by fractures and divides along religious — mainly Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim — as well as secular political lines.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who is considered a contender for prime minister in a new government, said on CNN on Sunday that he thinks it is important for democracy to take hold in Iraq so that a group of states can emerge and provide “a nucleus for stability in the whole and greater Middle East area.”

“Without this, it’s very difficult,” he said. “Democracy is synonymous to stability, and stability is synonymous to security. And to understand the security, we cannot act independently as Iraq alone.”

Current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has gained popularity in Iraq with the reduction in violence.

“I voted for Nouri al-Maliki because I trust him as a man who succeeded in getting rid of militias and building a strong state,” Saadi Mahdi, a 43-year-old engineer in the southern oil city of Basra, told the Associated Press.

The last time nationwide parliamentary votes were held was in December 2005 when an estimated 70 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.

Unlike the earlier elections, the U.S. military did not provide a massive security effort this time. The U.S. military presence was limited to helicopters supporting Iraqi ground troops and security personnel.

Another major difference between Sunday’s election and the two parliamentary elections in 2005 was the participation of Sunni Arab parties and the fact that no Sunni Arab parties are affiliated with anti-government militias. The Sunni Arab parties also are campaigning in multiethnic coalitions.

One of the most important contests in some ways occurred before any votes were cast. In January, an Accountability and Justice Commission designed to bar members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party from running for public office at first barred more than 500 candidates and then winnowed that list to 350 after hearing appeals from some of the banned candidates.

One of those candidates was Saleh al-Mutlak, a Sunni Arab businessman. In an interview in January, Mr. al-Mutlak predicted that his exclusion from the election could drive some Sunni factions to violence. In the end, he urged his co-religionists not to boycott the election.

The main political coalitions are not expected to win an outright majority in the 325-member parliament. The coalition that wins the most votes will put together a government, which is expected to be contentious in Iraq’s unconventional democratic system.

U.S. Central Command commander Gen. David H. Petraeus has dubbed the freewheeling Iraqi political system “Iraqracy.”

While Iran still has influence in Iraqi institutions, Iraq’s military in 2008 launched a campaign against Shi’ite militias supported by Iran with Mr. al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, leading that charge.

According to AP, after polls opened Sunday morning, loudspeakers broadcast messages from mosques throughout the nation urging Iraqis to vote.

In Hurriyah, a Shi’ite section of Baghdad, a terrorist threw a hand grenade into a crowd of voters, killing three people.

Security was tight and barbed wire was placed around polling stations.

Eli Lake contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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