Iraqi authorities tally millions of ballots from election

Iraqi authorities tallied millions of ballots Friday from elections to choose a parliament in a mostly peaceful election, among the freest ever in the Arab world. Officials said it could take at least two weeks until final results are announced for the parliament, which will serve a four-year term, but an indication of the overall turnout should be available Friday when the election commission holds a planned a news conference.

There were early indications that Shiite tickets did well in southern areas where the religious group is dominant, and that turnout in provinces such as Najaf was as high as 80 percent. Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq's 27 million people, compared to about 20 percent for Sunni Arabs.

In Mosul, capital of the predominantly Sunni Arab province of Nineveh, a representative for the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, Hameed Shabaky, said indications were that his governing party had come fourth in the region behind the Sunni coalition, the Kurds and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite.

So many Sunni Arabs voted Thursday that ballots ran out in some places. The strong participation by Sunnis, the backbone of the insurgency, bolstered U.S. hopes that the election could produce a broad-based government capable of ending the daily suicide attacks and other violence that have ravaged the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Difficult times lie ahead, however. The coalition of religious Shiite parties that dominates the current government is expected to win the biggest portion of the 275 seats, but will almost certainly need to compromise with rival factions, with widely differing views, to form a government.

Although violence was reported light Thursday with only three people killed in bombings around Iraq, police reported Friday that five bodies turned up in the predominantly Shiite north Baghdad suburb of Kazimiyah.

Police Lt. Col. Riyad Abdulwahid said the four bodies had all been shot and were all wearing Interior Ministry commando uniforms, a force which has been accused by Sunni Arabs of taking part in the abuse and torture of detainees. The fifth body had been decapitated and was dressed in an Iraqi army uniform, Abdulwahid added.

Ballots were being transported in their transparent boxes by heavily armed Iraqi troops to central warehouses in each province, usually after being counted at one of the thousands of polling stations around Iraq. A nationwide vehicle ban remained in effect, and most Iraqis walked to mosques for prayers as they had to polling stations on Thursday.

Streets were generally empty of cars, except for trucks carrying ballots, police, ambulances and a few others with permits. Up to 11 million of the nation's 15 million registered voters took part, election officials estimated, which would put overall turnout at more than 70 percent.

Many Sunnis said they voted to register their opposition to the Shiite-led government and to speed the end of the U.S. military presence.

"What happened yesterday in Sunni areas and Iraq does not mean that the resistance is getting weaker," said Mohammed Abdelkarim, 42, a teacher in Ramadi, an insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad. "The resistance will not die till the withdrawal of the occupation forces."

Opposition to the American military presence runs deeper among Sunni Arabs, the minority group which enjoyed a privileged position under Saddam, than among any of Iraq's other religious and ethnic communities.

While Sunnis were defiant, Shiites and Kurds seemed hopeful the new government would be more successful than the outgoing one in restoring security.

A common theme, however, appeared to be a yearning for an end to the turmoil that has engulfed Iraq since the U.S.-led coalition invaded in March 2003 to topple Saddam's regime.

Officials said it could take at least two weeks until final results are announced for the parliament, which will serve a four-year term. Violence was light. Insurgent groups, as promised, generally refrained from attacks on polling stations. In Ramadi, masked gunmen provided by local sheiks guarded polling stations, frisking voters as they entered.

Thursday's election appeared on track to record more votes than any other parliamentary election in an Arab country, though more than 17 million people voted in a May referendum in Egypt, and more than 14.6 million in a September referendum in Algeria, according to IFES, a nonprofit organization that supports building democratic societies. U.S. President George W. Bush called it "a major step forward in achieving our objective." U.S. officials hope a broad-based government will be able to quell the bloodshed so that the United States can begin to bring troops home next year, reports the AP. I.L.

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