In the face of bomb and mortar attacks that killed 38 people and wounded 89 others, Iraqis went to the polls yesterday to elect a new parliament.
In a sinister new twist to insurgent methods in attacking civilians, explosives were placed in rooms rented by bombers in two apartment blocks in Baghdad and later detonated, destroying them both. This tactic, employed against the majority Shia community, could spark a new wave of fear in the capital, despite heavy police and army security, and checkpoints every few hundred yards. In one residential building in the Shaab district of Baghdad, 25 people were killed by a bomb.
Counting was already under way last night, but it is unlikely that the election for the 325-member parliament will produce a majority for any single party or coalition of parties, and a new government will only be formed after weeks of hard bargaining over top jobs and control of ministries. The outcome of negotiations is likely to be the return of a Shia-Kurdish coalition, but possibly under a new prime minister, replacing Nouri al-Maliki.
The US is watching the results of the election nervously, fearing that any escalation in political turmoil and violence might put in doubt the Obama administration's plan to withdraw all its combat troops by the end of August this year, and its remaining soldiers by the end of 2011.
In Washington, President Barack Obama paid tribute to Iraqi voters' courage.
“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,” he said.
He added that their participation showed that “the Iraqi people have chosen to shape their future through the political process”.
The poll yesterday saw millions of people, out of the 19m Iraqis eligible to vote, go to polling stations in the first parliamentary election since 2005. Unlike that election, which was largely boycotted by the formerly dominant Sunni Arab community, the Sunni appeared to have voted in large numbers this time.
This was despite threats from the Islamic State of Iraq, the umbrella organisation for al-Qaida, that it would target voters, and despite the sporadic mortar attacks that took place on polling places in Baghdad and Fallujah.
A Mosul provincial council member was shot dead in an area disputed between Arabs and Kurds. Many Sunni consider past boycotts to have been a mistake because they benefited Shia and Kurdish parties. Mr Maliki, who is leading the State of Law coalition, said that attacks yesterday were “just noises to scare the Iraqi people from voting”.
He has presented himself as the strong leader who has brought back security to Iraq, crushed the Shia militias, negotiated the departure of US forces, and made a start in restoring services.
His own Dawa Party held only 10 seats in the previous parliament, but he has the great advantage of a £40bn budget and millions of government jobs. He enjoys considerable, but as yet unmeasured, popularity.
The Prime Minister may have been weakened by a series of large bomb attacks since August last year in which suicide bombers detonated trucks filled with explosives, inflicting heavy civilian casualties.
The political campaign has been dominated since January by a furore over the banning of parliamentary candidates, mostly Sunni or secular Shia, alleged to have had links with the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein. Mr Maliki went along with this to make sure he retained core Shia support, but his actions disillusioned some Sunni.
The main opposition to Mr Maliki are two other coalitions — the Iraqi National Alliance and Iraqiya — the first of which is more overtly Shia and the second, led by the former prime minister Iyad Alawi, claims to be more secular and to enjoy Sunni support.
Preliminary results are due on March 10-11, based on votes cast at 30% of polling stations.