Vote count under way as US, UN hail Iraq election
Employees of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) count ballots during Iraqi parliamentary elections in Najaf - REUTERS

  BAGHDAD: Vote counting was under way Thursday after Iraqis braved a wave of attacks to cast ballots in elections hailed by the U.S. and United Nations as a rebuke to jihadists.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said he was “certain” of victory, but the incumbent faces widespread opposition, including from within his own Shiite community, over a marked deterioration in security, rampant corruption and high unemployment.

Preliminary results are not expected for at least two weeks. Initial figures from the election commission said about 60 percent of Iraq’s 20 million eligible voters cast ballots. The turnout in the last election, in March 2010, was 62 percent.

Wednesday’s general election, the first since US troops withdrew in late 2011, took place as more violence rocked the country, with 14 people killed during the day, including two election workers.

But a security clampdown meant violence levels were lower than in the preceding two days, when in all nearly 90 people died, with Washington and the United Nations hailing the vote as a broadside to extremists trying to derail the political process.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Iraqis had “courageously voted”, sending “a powerful rebuke to the violent extremists” in Iraq and the region.

The U.N. Security Council urged Iraq’s leaders to form a government “that represents the will and sovereignty of the Iraqi people” as soon as possible.

The Security Council, in a statement, stressed “no act of violence or terrorism can reverse a path towards peace, democracy and reconstruction in Iraq, underpinned by the rule of law and respect for human rights, which is supported by the people and the government of Iraq and the international community”.

Iraqis complain of myriad grievances, from poor public services to soaring corruption and high unemployment, but the month-long election campaign hinged on Maliki’s bid for a third term and the dramatically deteriorating security.

– Maliki confident of victory –

The 63-year-old on Wednesday voiced confidence he would stay in office, telling journalists after he cast his ballot at a VIP polling centre in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone: “Our victory is certain, but we are waiting to see the size of our victory.”

Analysts had expressed fears much of the electorate would stay home rather than risk being targeted by militants. But many Iraqis said they had voted despite the unrest because they were tired of their elected officials.

“I hope that Iraq has a safe future, and that unemployment is tackled, and industry, agriculture and trade return to their original stature, instead of just relying on oil,” said 91-year-old Jawad Kamal al-Din, who hobbled to a polling centre in west Baghdad.

“I hope to change all the current politicians, especially members of parliament, because they are thieves and are looting the country’s money.”

More than 750 people were killed in April, with violence at its peak since a brutal sectarian conflict killed tens of thousands in 2006 and 2007.

Militants have controlled the town of Fallujah since the beginning of the year, preventing polling in parts of mainly Sunni Arab Anbar province, west of Baghdad.

Maliki’s critics have accused him of concentrating power and marginalizing the Sunni minority, and say public services have not sufficiently improved during his eight-year rule.

The prime minister contends the violence is fuelled by the conflict in neighboring Syria and has accused Sunni Saudi Arabia and Qatar of backing insurgents.

Maliki’s State of Law alliance is tipped to win the most seats in parliament but fall short of a majority. This means he will have to court other Shiite parties, as well as Sunni and Kurdish blocs, if he is to remain in power.

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