Security is ramped up as crucial Iraqi voting begins

BAGHDAD — Iraq closed its airspace, sealed its borders and banned traffic in major cities as voting began today in key provincial elections, which many Iraqis hope will help stabilize their country.

The draconian security measures were a reminder of the threat of violence despite recent improvements in the country. On Thursday, three Sunni candidates were gunned down, the latest example of the dangers facing candidates campaigning openly for the first time since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.

U.S. officials hope the balloting will give the Sunnis a fairer share of power and thus undermine the appeal of the insurgency. Results are not expected for several days.

It could take weeks of dealmaking to determine which parties have gained control of key areas such as Baghdad, the Shiite-dominated south and former insurgent strongholds of western Anbar province.

Traffic bans were ordered for Baghdad and other major cities. The closely monitored frontiers with Iran and Syria were among borders that were sealed. A nighttime curfew also was in place, apparently to block extremist groups that plant roadside bombs under cover of darkness.

Double-ring cordons at thousands of polling sites — in schools, offices and civic centers — stretched from the foothills in the far north to the Persian Gulf in the south. Female teachers and other civilians were recruited to help search for possible female suicide bombers.

Today's contest is the first electoral test of the progress made since the surge of U.S. troops in 2007. The full-scale clampdown brought back an aura of some of Iraq's most unstable days, including the 2005 elections, which many observers believe set the stage for sectarian violence a year later. Those elections helped create the rivalries that propelled Iraq into a state of virtual civil war in 2006-07, fueling widespread disappointment with the democratic process.

On the streets, however, the mood was upbeat, with most Iraqis saying they planned to vote, in the hope of setting the country on a new course.

"We want to open a new chapter," said Sarah Haitham, 21, an unemployed fine arts graduate.

By the numbers

15 million Iraqis eligible to vote

14,000 Candidates running

440 Seats open on provincial councils, the equivalent of state legislatures

4 Candidates who have been killed in the run-up to the election, three of them on Thursday and one on Jan. 16

Blackwater Worldwide is out

The State Department will not renew Blackwater Worldwide's contract to protect U.S. diplomats in Iraq when it expires in May. The Iraqi government denied Blackwater a license after a 2007 shooting in Baghdad that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead.

Security is ramped up as crucial Iraqi voting begins 01/30/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 30, 2009 11:57pm]

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