Polls close across Iraq in first vote since victory over IS

Iraq Elections Credit: AP/Press Association Images

Polls have closed across Iraq in the first national election since the country declared victory over the Islamic State group.

The vote, the fourth since the 2003 US-led toppling of Saddam Hussein and first conducted electronically to reduce fraud, was marked by reports of low turnout and irregularities.

No clear front-runner has emerged after weeks of official campaigning as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi faced stiff competition from political parties with closer ties to Iran.

Results are expected within 48 hours according to the independent body that oversees Iraq’s election, but negotiations to choose a prime minister tasked with forming a government are expected to drag on for months.

Voting began early Saturday and polling centres were set up for many of the country’s two million people who remain displaced by the war against IS.

Britain congratulated the country and hailed the elections as a "historic day for Iraq."

There is no clear frontrunner in an election still overshadowed by the legacy of war. Credit: Iraq Elections

Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said: "Today was an historic day for Iraq. I congratulate the Iraqi people on another successful election."

He added: "I also congratulate the Iraqi security forces and electoral authorities for ensuring a peaceful and orderly ballot in a challenging environment including regrettable reports of attacks aimed at disrupting today's vote."

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s stiffest competition came from political parties with closer ties to Iran and many of those arriving to vote expressed cautious hope for the future.

Baghdad’s streets began to fill up with cars before voting concluded after al-Abadi partially lifted a security curfew in an effort to improve turnout.

Nearly all civilian vehicles had been banned from Baghdad’s streets on Saturday morning and many voters complained of having to walk more than two miles to reach polling stations.

An Iraqi woman shows her ink-stained finger after casting her vote in the first Iraqi election since the victory over IS. Credit: AP

Some in Baghdad complained of voting irregularities at polling stations linked to a new electronic voting system implemented for the first time this year in an effort to reduce fraud.

Thamer Aref, 45, along with his wife and daughter, were turned away from a polling station north of central Baghdad.

Aref had turned in his old voter ID card months ago for the biometric identification card required by the new system.

Security will be tight at polling stations. Credit: Iraq Elections

However, Aref’s biometric card was not ready ahead of Saturday and, with neither card, the polling station did not allow him to a cast a ballot.

“I lost my right to vote,” he said.

Associated Press journalists documented several similar cases at a number of different polling stations across Baghdad.

Amira Muhammed, the supervisor of a polling station in Azamiyah, Baghdad, said some people could not vote because they did not pick up their new biometric ID cards in time.

“The problem is not with us,” she said.

Many of those arriving to vote Saturday morning expressed cautious hope. Credit: Iraq Elections

In central Baghdad, voters supporting al-Abadi said they are doing so because they give him credit for Iraq's military victory over IS.

Al-Abadi "took revenge" for civilians killed in insurgent attacks in Iraq "with the victory over Daesh," said 71 year-old Felihah Hassan, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

Mr Al-Abadi took office just weeks after IS fighters overran nearly a third of Iraq’s territory in the summer of 2014 and has since overseen the gruelling military defeat of the group with close support from the US-led coalition and Iran.

Despite the premier’s military achievements, Iraq continues to struggle with an economic downturn, sparked in part by a drop in global oil prices, entrenched corruption and years of political gridlock.

Mr al-Abadi’s most powerful opponents are his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, and an alliance of candidates with close ties to the country’s powerful, mostly Shiite paramilitary forces.

Mr Al-Abadi is credited with leading the fight against IS, but has struggled to reboot the economy. Credit: Iraq Elections

The alliance, called “Fatah” – Arabic for “Conquest” – is headed by Hadi al-Amiri, a former minister of transport who became a senior commander of paramilitary fighters in the fight against the IS group. Many of the candidates on his list were also paramilitary commanders before they cut their official ties with the force in order to seek office.

Another key player in the vote is Influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He commanded fighters in the war against IS and headed a powerful militia that fought U.S. forces in Iraq before that, but his election campaign has focused on social issues and eliminating government corruption.

In total there are 329 parliament seats at stake, with nearly 7,000 candidates from dozens of political alliances.