Iraq locks down for elections

BAGHDAD (Reuters) — Quiet fell across most of Iraq on Wednesday on the eve of its parliamentary elections, with a stringent security lockdown preventing all but sporadic violence.
A traffic ban was in force for three days, borders were sealed and shops and businesses closed. Most Iraqis stayed at home ahead of the vote, leaving the streets to tens of thousands of police and troops on the lookout for bombers. Campaigning was banned on the last day before the vote. Violent incidents were concentrated in the north: A roadside bomb aimed at an Iraqi security patrol killed a child in Samarra, police said, a trade ministry employee was shot dead in the oil refining town of Baiji, and a roadside bomb in Mosul killed two policemen and wounded three. But Islamist demonstrators massed in Baghdad and some Shiite cities, protesting at a comments in an Al Jazeera television discussion programme which they said insulted Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. In one southern town police intervened when marchers turned their anger on a campaign office of leading secular Shiite candidate Iyad Allawi.

The protesters were offended by comments by a guest on Qatar-based Al Jazeera on Tuesday when he was reported to have said Sistani should stay out of politics.

The demonstrations were a reminder of profound sectarian tensions underlying a poll that will complete a US timetable for establishing a democratic system in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. It will usher in a fully-empowered government for the next four years.

“Al Jazeera are terrorists,” read one banner above about 5,000 protesters in Baghdad’s Shiite Sadr city district, professing love for Sistani. His blessing for the Shiite alliance coalition was key to its success in an election for the present interim national assembly in January.

Armed police joined the chanting by about 1,000 marchers in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Sistani’s base, demanding Al Jazeera apology and shouting slogans against Sunni leaders and Allawi.

Al Jazeera journalists were banned from working in Iraq after government complaints the channel favoured Sunni rebels.

Insurgents back candidates

Al Qaeda has vowed to disrupt the vote but other Sunni insurgents are backing candidates and say they will defend the ballot to give the disaffected minority a say in government.

“We know there could be bombings but we’re not worried as everyone is voting,” said Ameen Ali Hussein, 22, an army special forces soldier manning a checkpoint in Baghdad.

Small explosive devices damaged three empty polling stations in the Sunni Arab city of Fallujah on Wednesday, police said. No one was hurt but 4,000 ballot papers were stolen.

“There is a quiet confidence that things are going to go well,” the UN envoy to Iraq, Ashraf Qazi, told Reuters.

Police intervened when the Shiite protesters in Nassiriya, numbering several thousand according to one resident and several hundred according to police, damaged a campaign office for Allawi, a former prime minister who is running strongly against the ruling Islamists on a non-sectarian slate.

The relative calm and the expected big turnout among Sunnis are likely to be hailed loudly as successes in Washington, where a new poll found 59 per cent of Americans disapproved of President George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq war.

Bush will give the last in a series of four speeches on Iraq later in the day and is expected again to stress the long-term commitment the United States must make to the country.

“On the eve of a historic elections, the president believes it is an important time to take stock of where we are in Iraq, why we are there, why it is important, what the stakes are and why we will achieve victory,” his spokesman said.

The head of the electoral commission in ousted president Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit threatened to walk out with his team, complaining Iraqi soldiers tried to force their way into his offices on Tuesday before being fired on by his guards.

Tempers calmed later, however, and he returned to work.

The interior ministry denied a story, given to journalists overnight by police and ministry officials speaking anonymously, that a tanker truck stuffed with forged ballot papers was seized crossing the frontier from Iran.

The ministry said it was an attempt to discredit the elections. Allegations of clandestine Iranian support for fellow Shiite Islamists leading the interim government are common place among secular rivals and Saddam’s fellow minority Sunni Arabs.

Allegations of abuses, including fraud and intimidation, have multiplied during a vibrant and vigorous campaign, marked by mass-media advertising, that has drawn in rebellious Sunnis who boycotted the vote for the interim parliament in January.

But that election and a constitutional referendum in October did earn passing grades from UN vote monitors and fraud is not expected on a wide scale, despite grumbling among minorities, particularly Sunni leaders.

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