BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Hundreds of thousands of supporters of Muqtada al Sadr voted in primary elections Friday in an attempt by the radical Shiite Muslim cleric to restore his party's popularity, which was shaken in the last elections early this year.
However, there were few safeguards against double voting, and the party claimed far more votes than the number it had registered a few days earlier.
The primary, Iraq's first since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, was open to non-party members. More than 670 people, including 83 women, competed to fill more than 50 candidates' positions in January parliamentary elections.
An election song, "I am Sadrist, and I vote for a Sadrist," blared through loudspeakers outside a Shiite mosque in west Baghdad's al Bayaa neighborhood, one of 118 voting centers in the Iraqi capital.
Sadrist officials claimed that more than 1.5 million people voted during the nine hours the polls were open. Sadrist spokesman Salah al Obaidi told McClatchy on Wednesday that 250,000, less than 17 percent of that number, had registered as of that day.
"I believe this step will restore to our Sadr trend its previous popular support that declined a little in the last provincial council elections early this year," said shoe vendor Qassim Hashim as he washed the ink off his index finger that signified he'd voted. The ink was supposed to be indelible.
The Sadrist movement and other Shiite parties lost most of their support in Shiite provinces in southern and central Iraq to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in the provincial election held in January after many Iraqis concluded that they'd failed to deliver public services and provoked sectarian conflict.
In a statement posted on his movement's official Web site, Sadr described the primary elections as "a first step to liberate Iraq politically."
Although Sadrists claimed that Iraq's Independent High Election Commission was supervising the balloting, there were ample opportunities for widespread irregularities, and one independent monitor expressed strong doubt about the integrity of the vote.
Although the voting age in Iraq is 18, the Sadrists allowed those as young as 15 to cast ballots. Crowds of them filled the streets in Sadr City and Hurriyah, two Sadrist strongholds in Baghdad, chanting and waving Iraqi flags. Many polling stations in Baghdad ran out of ballots and had to send for more.
Sadrist spokesman Obaidi had told McClatchy that voters were being registered in advance, but McClatchy reporters observed people in at least four polling places obtaining ballots without reference to a voters' list.
Muhamed Naeem al Kinani, the head of Iraqein, an independent election-monitoring group, said the voting Friday wouldn't satisfy international election criteria. "There was no voters' register, and the ink was not chosen according to election standards," he told McClatchy. "The aim was to mobilize people."
Female participation was high at some polling stations where entire families were coming to voting at mosques and Sadrist party buildings, especially in Sadr City, a poor Shiite neighborhood in east Baghdad and once one of the most dangerous areas in Baghdad.
Police and army patrols protected the streets leading to the mosques and buildings that were being used as polling stations.
Not all who participated in the primaries were Sadrists, nor were all the candidates.
"I don't belong to any party or trend, but I'm here because I'm a Muslim Iraqi, and this practice deserves respect," said Fadhil Yasir, an agricultural engineer from Sadr City. "We are here to support this democratic step."
Political analyst Hazim al Nuaimi said that Sadr party politicians approached him and others several months ago to ask for advice about the position and the political future of the Sadr trend.
"The popularity of the Sadr trend declined after they abandoned the Mahdi army (militia), and this was obvious in the last provincial elections," said al Nuaimi, referring to the January election.
Also on Friday, 13 people were killed and 75 injured when a suicide bomber broke into a Sunni mosque in the town of Tal Afar in northern Iraq. Also Friday, a car bomb exploded near a checkpoint manned by the Iraqi army in Mosul and killed one soldier.
(Hussein and Dulaimy are McClatchy special correspondents. Roy Gutman contributed.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:
McClatchy Newspapers 2009