BAGHDAD, Iraq—An estimated 10 million to 12 million Iraqis went to the polls Thursday in a heavy turnout to elect the country's first permanent parliament since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, setting the stage for months of negotiations to form a new government.
The day was remarkably peaceful. Sunni Muslims turned out to vote in large numbers, after most stayed away from the polls in January, either following calls from Sunni political leaders to boycott the vote or in fear for their safety. Only 8 million Iraqis voted in the January election.
The broader participation promised to make the new National Assembly far more representative than the outgoing one, which drafted Iraq's constitution. Yet it remained far from clear whether Iraq's feuding ethnic groups would be able to overcome their sharp differences in political negotiations and avoid a slide into open civil war.
U.S. officials have expressed repeated hope that the election will lead to greater stability and create opportunities for a gradual drawdown of U.S. troops.
Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, said Thursday that he thought the elections would allow up to 70,000 troops to leave next year, which would bring the American troop total well under 100,000.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del, who was visiting Baghdad on Thursday, said that while he was pleased to see the elections go off without much of a hitch, he remained concerned that Sunnis would be frustrated should they fail to achieve the fundamental revisions they're seeking in the new constitution.
"If it's something the Sunnis don't buy into, then Katie bar the door, you couldn't have enough troops here," Biden said at a luncheon. "The fact is we could end up with a Shiite-based theocracy after this election."
Even before the polls closed, the majority Shiite Muslims began jockeying over what the next government would look like, while Kurds took a wait-and-see approach.
Shiite politicians from the United Iraqi Alliance said they wanted to include all sects in the government, but its leaders made it clear that they intended to lead the government if their Election Day projections—showing they'd win nearly half the assembly seats—proved correct.
"The United Iraqi Alliance will be the dominant bloc ... we will have just under half the parliament," said Hussein Shahrastani, an influential member of the group. "The prime minister will be from the United Iraqi Alliance and ... we will control the southern provinces and several in central Iraq as well."
Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari suggested that the alliance might broker a deal with the Kurds again to get enough seats to form a government without the cooperation of Sunnis or secular Shiites.
"I hope we will have a coalition with the Kurds," al-Jaafari said. "If we don't agree with them (the Kurds) on certain points, we are not shy about it; we will tell them directly. But we have agreed on the main points."
Al-Jaafari's strategy, however, depends on the alliance and the Kurdish parties garnering at least two-thirds of the assembly seats, which would be necessary to elect a prime minister. Between a strong Sunni turnout and a possibly significant vote for a slate of secular candidates, led by the former U.S.-appointed Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, it was unclear how viable that strategy would be.
The results from Thursday's election could take at least two weeks to tally, said Farid Ayar, a spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq. Preliminary numbers could be available in a week.
Convening the 275-member assembly and voting in a new government could take months longer.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, spoke approvingly of the notion that the elections would result in a national unity government in which Iraq's main sects would come together to form a ruling coalition.
"That's the dominant option that people are talking about," he said.
Allawi also has proposed a national unity government, and if his slate gains enough votes he could prove key in constructing an electoral coalition that bridges Iraq's sectarian divides. In Shiite and Sunni towns throughout Iraq, some voters said he was the best hope of stopping sectarianism.
"I voted for Ayad Allawi though I voted for the United Iraqi Alliance last time," said Hannah Abdul Ridha, 37, a Shiite housewife from the southern city of Basra. "I tried the former list and we did not see any improvement in security and living."
Some Sunni voters said they wanted representatives in the established government, but would continue to support insurgent forces.
"I voted in order to have politicians fight the occupation along with men who use weapons to resist," Ahmed Hatem, 28, a mobile phone-shop owner in Fallujah, said after voting.
In insurgent hotbeds such as Ramadi and Fallujah, tribesmen guarded polling centers as Sunnis dipped their fingers in ink. Those who voted said Sunnis couldn't make gains on the country's most important issues without seats in the new assembly.
In the majority Shiite holy town of Najaf, residents reveled in the day, which they compared to a wedding celebration. They walked to the polls with their children in hand. Some later displayed their ink-stained fingers as they walked past the short blast walls around downtown.
For Shiites, it was a day to take final control of the government and end Shiite and Iraqi oppression. Nearly all in Najaf said they voted for the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance slate.
"The United Iraqi Alliance is the list of the oppressed," said Sheik Mohammed al-Assadi, who helped form the alliance and whose three brothers were executed under Saddam's bloody regime during the Shiite uprising against Saddam in 1991. It's "... the list of those who didn't get power for 1,400 years."
Thursday's vote was the third election in a year for Iraqis. In January, the Shiites won the majority of seats for the interim National Assembly. In October, Iraqis ratified a new constitution, although Sunnis voted overwhelmingly against it.
Nearly all the parties immediately began questioning the results of Thursday's vote. Electoral workers in Sunni cities such as Fallujah and Irbil complained that they ran out of ballots. Allawi said there was a long list of violations and that he would take his complaints to the United Nations. Members of the United Iraqi Alliance charged that Sunnis in Anbar province were forcing residents to vote for Sunni slates.
The electoral commission said it received nearly 150 complaints, and promised to investigate.
(Leila Fadel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Najaf and Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Ahmed Mukhtar, Mohammed al Dulaimy, Mohammed al Awsy, Shatha al Awsy and Zaineb Obeid in Baghdad, Hassan al Jubouri in Tikrit and Saeed Omar in Sulaimaniyah contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ