Iraqis walk through fire to vote
- Iraqis walk through fire to vote; blasts claim 38 lives
BAGHDAD, March 7: Bomb blasts and rocket and mortar fire killed 38 people as Iraqis voted on Sunday in an election they hoped would distance their nascent democracy from years of sectarian slaughter as US troops pack up to leave.
The explosions rumbled across Baghdad and other cities after insurgents vowed to wreck voting for Iraq's second full-term parliament since the 2003 US invasion, a vote watched closely by global oil companies planning to invest billions to develop the country's dilapidated oilfields.
Turnout among the 19 million eligible voters was not clear.
It could take three days to get results in an election that will prove vital to US President Barack Obama's plan to halve US troop levels by August and withdraw completely by end-2011.
"I have great respect for the millions of Iraqis who refused to be deterred by acts of violence, and who exercised their right to vote today," Mr Obama said in a statement. "Their participation demonstrates that the Iraqi people have chosen to shape their future through the political process."
Authorities said dozens of mortar and rocket attacks rattled Baghdad during the early hours of polling before ebbing later in the day. In the deadliest incident, 25 people were killed when an explosion blew up a three-storey Baghdad apartment block.
Rescuers pulled bodies from the rubble as a woman buried under debris screamed to be saved.
Four people were killed in a similar explosion at another residential building and nine others were killed in rocket, mortar and roadside bomb attacks.
"It is terrible that lives have been lost but it doesn't change the course of the Iraqis," said Ad Melkert, the UN special representative to Iraq. "There will be issues, but they are serious elections and many Iraqis have participated with great conviction."
Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission said only two polling stations had to be closed briefly for security reasons.
The Islamic State of Iraq, an Al Qaeda affiliate, had warned Iraqis not to vote and vowed to attack those who defied them.
The 96,000 US troops still in Iraq stayed in the background, underscoring the waning American role in Iraq, but US helicopter gunships provided aerial support.
Voters in the ethnically and religiously divided country were given a choice between Shia Islamist parties that have dominated Iraq since Saddam Hussein's fall and secular rivals.
Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki urged all parties to accept the results and called the attacks a disgrace.
"They (militants) cannot see democracy and freedom," he said. "All their challenges have failed and the population will win."
One of Mr Maliki's opponents, ex-prime minister Iyad Allawi, had already complained of irregularities in early voting and on election night criticised the electoral commission (IHEC) for "wide and severe confusion" at voting centres.
"I ask the next parliament to open a full investigation in the issue of election and the roles played by some government officials, also to include all the IHEC members," he said.
About 6,200 candidates from 86 factions are vying for 325 parliamentary seats. No bloc is expected to win a majority, and it may take months to form a government, risking a vacuum that armed groups such as Iraq's Al Qaeda offshoot might exploit.
Few elections in the Middle East have been as competitive as this one. Its conduct could determine how democracy in Iraq affects a region used to kings and presidents-for-life.Reuters
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