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Big turnout as Iraqis vote

BAGHDAD, Jan 29 – Several hundred thousand Iraqis voted on Wednesday in the first stage of a landmark provincial election, the country’s first ballot since 2005, with officials reporting a high turnout.

The voting was held ahead of Saturday’s main polling day to try to avoid the security, logistical and electoral fraud problems which plagued the parliamentary election of January 2005 when the vote was held on a single day.

About 617,000 police, soldiers, hospital patients and prisoners were eligible to cast advance ballots at 1,669 polling stations.

"I’m happy to confirm there has not been any violations or irregularities or whatsoever," Faraj al-Haydari, chairman of the Independent High Electoral Commission, told reporters in Baghdad after voting stations closed.

"Turnout was huge," he said, without providing a figure.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has previously said he was hopeful of an overall turnout of between 70-80 percent.

The election is seen by Washington and Baghdad as a litmus test of Iraq’s stability in the face of simmering unrest as US troops prepare to accelerate their plan to withdraw from Iraq by 2011.

Security was especially tight in the capital, with hundreds of armed soldiers and police guarding polling stations as part of a sweeping plan to prevent the kind of violence that hit the 2005 vote.

A bomb went off near one polling station in western Baghdad, but no injuries were reported. However two policemen were killed north of the capital in an attack on a school that was to be used as a polling station on Saturday.

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With the help of the United Nations, Iraq is holding the elections in 14 of its 18 provinces, excluding the three autonomous Kurdish provinces in the north and the disputed province of Kirkuk.

About 15 million citizens are being called to the polls to elect among more than 14,000 officials for 440 seats.

Iraq’s borders will be closed on the eve of the poll, while transport bans and night-time curfews will also be put in place.

The provincial councils are responsible for nominating governors who lead the administration, finance and reconstruction projects in their areas, while security forces remain under Baghdad’s control.

Army lieutenant Adnan Jaafar was among those voting on Wednesday.

"I’m happy because the elections are being held democratically and without pressure," he said, adding that he had voted for Premier Maliki’s State of Law coalition.

In Ramadi, the capital of the Sunni Arab province of Al-Anbar where voters largely boycotted the 2005 election, a large number of police and soldiers went to the polling stations, an AFP reporter witnessed.

Only 3,775 people voted in Anbar in 2005, less than one percent of the electorate.

Sunni Arabs across Iraq are now expected to contest the provincial ballot in large numbers to reverse the political imbalance that resulted from their near nationwide boycott four years ago.

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Their absence allowed Shiite and Kurdish parties to take control of parliament, which bred resentment among Sunnis and was partly to blame for a violent insurgency that cost tens of thousands of lives.

A study by an international monitoring group that studies conflict-hit countries emphasised the importance of the polls.

"Whereas the January 2005 elections helped put Iraq on the path to all-out civil war, these polls could represent another, far more peaceful turning point," the International Crisis Group said.

But voting in the oil-rich province of Basra was marred when a fight broke out between a group of journalists and guards at a prison ballot centre.

"When we turned our cameras on they suddenly said the filming is over. We told them we are here to work but they didn’t care and they started pushing us and punching and kicking us," cameraman Faisal Sachet told AFP.

"They took my camera and destroyed it," he said, adding that two other journalists had had their camera equipment broken.

In the southern Shiite city of Nasiriyah 10 policemen were arrested for electoral interference.

"They encouraged some civilians as they neared the polling centre to vote for a certain group," police Major General Sabah al-Fatllawi, told AFP.

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