BAGHDAD (AFP) - Iraq began tallying votes on Saturday (May 12) after its first election since defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group, with apathy rife for a poll some fear could stir a tug-of-war between the United States and Iran.
The official turnout was expected to be low as many of the roughly 24.5 million voters skipped the parliamentary ballot, despite it passing off largely peacefully.
Iraqis faced a fragmented political landscape five months after the ouster of IS, with the dominant Shi'ites split, the Kurds in disarray and Sunnis sidelined.
Security was tight given the lingering militant threat. One policeman was killed and five wounded by mortar in eastern Iraq, a local official said, but there were no major incidents.
The poll comes with tensions surging between key powers Iran and the US after Washington pulled out of a landmark 2015 nuclear deal, sparking fears of a destabilising power struggle over Iraq.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lauded the vote and called in a statement for an “inclusive government, responsive to the needs of all Iraqis”.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi – who took office as ISIS rampaged across Iraq in 2014 – is angling for a new term, claiming credit for defeating the jihadists and seeing off a Kurdish push for independence.
But competition from within his Shi'ite community, the majority group dominating Iraqi politics, will likely splinter the vote and spell lengthy horse-trading to form any government.
“Iraq is strong and unified after defeating terror,” Abadi said after voting.
More than 15 blood-sodden years since the US-led ouster of Saddam Hussein, there is deep scepticism about a political system dominated by an elite seen as mired in corruption and sectarianism.
At a polling station in the Baghdad district of Karrada, 74-year-old voter Sami Wadi appealed for change “to save the country”.
He called on Iraqis “to prevent those who have controlled the nation since 2003 from staying in power”.
'VOTING FOR SECURITY'
Many Iraqis – especially the country’s disenfranchised youth – skipped the vote, complaining they saw few prospects that the poll would improve their lives.
While voting stations in the capital were sparsely attended, in some parts of the country there seemed greater interest in the election.
In former ISIS bastion Mosul – still partly in ruins from the months-long fight to oust the group – residents queued up to make their choice as they look to recover from extremist rule.
“I am voting for security and the economy to stabilise and for a better future,” said labourer Ali Fahmi, 26.
Overall, just under 7,000 candidates are standing and Iraq’s complex system means no single bloc is likely to get anything near a majority in the 329-seat parliament.
A new electronic voting system appeared to cause problems for many voters with some officials saying not enough had been done to raise public awareness.
Initial results are expected in three days.
Whoever emerges as premier will face the mammoth task of rebuilding a country left shattered by the battle against IS – with donors already pledging $30 billion (25 billion euros).
More than two million people remain internally displaced and ISIS – which has threatened the polls – is still able to launch deadly attacks.
Iraq has long been a crucible for the rivalry between Iran and the US, with Teheran exerting influence over Shi'ite politicians and Washington deploying troops to fight ISIS.
Abadi – a consensus figure who has balanced the US and Iran – is facing two leading challengers to his Victory Alliance with closer ties to Teheran.
Ex-premier Nuri al-Maliki is widely reviled for stirring sectarianism and losing territory to ISIS, but draws support from hardliners.
“I wish for all to go to the ballot boxes to make their choice,” Maliki said after casting his ballot, alleging “attempts at falsification through the pressuring of voters”.
Hadi al-Ameri – a contender who led Iran-backed paramilitary units that fought ISIS alongside Baghdad’s troops – called for “change” as he seeks to turn battlefield wins into political gains.
Votes in Sunni heartlands once dominated by ISIS – including Mosul – are up in the air as traditional alliances have been shredded by the fallout of jihadist rule.
Political forces in the Kurdish community – often seen as kingmakers – are also in disarray after a September vote for independence spectacularly backfired.
The Kurds look set to lose some of their clout on the national stage after Baghdad unleashed a battery of sanctions and seized back disputed oil-rich regions.
Putting on a brave face, the prime minister of autonomous Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani, insisted the political process would not succeed “without Kurdish participation”.
“No party can form the next government without alliances,” he said after voting.