BAGHDAD: Iraqis defied a rash of attacks that killed 14 people Wednesday and voted in the first general elections since U.S. troops withdrew, with Prime Minister Nouri 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 elections.
Ballot counting began immediately after polls closed at 6 p.m., 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.
Two different elections unfolded across Iraq Wednesday: one in predominantly Shiite areas of the country, where people were voting for the figure they thought best suited to defeat the Al-Qaeda offshoot the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS); the other in Sunni regions and neighborhoods in Baghdad, where people fear both the Shiite-led security forces and ISIS.
Iraqis complain of myriad grievances, from poor public services to rampant corruption and high unemployment, but the monthlong 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 center 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 toward ones of political majority, confidently telling journalists: “Our victory is certain, but we are waiting to see the size of our victory.”
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Iraqis had “courageously voted,” which had sent “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 U.N.’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 run-up to the elections, the first parliamentary poll since U.S. 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.
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 employees 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 still voiced confidence in Maliki and his Shiite-led government.
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.
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, and Sunni and Kurdish blocs, if he is to remain in power.