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Iraqis go to the polls in first elections since victory over IS

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi partially lifted a security curfew to encourage more people to come to vote after hours of low turnout.

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Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, centre, leaves a polling station in Baghdad after casting his ballot in the country’s parliamentary elections (AP)

Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, centre, leaves a polling station in Baghdad after casting his ballot in the country’s parliamentary elections (AP)

Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, centre, leaves a polling station in Baghdad after casting his ballot in the country’s parliamentary elections (AP)

Polls opened across Iraq on Saturday in the first national election since the declaration of victory over the Islamic State group.

After hours of low voter turnout, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi partially lifted a security curfew to encourage more people to come to the polls.

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Iraq Elections

Iraq Elections

AP/PA Images

Iraq Elections

After weeks of official campaigning, no clear front-runner has emerged as Mr al-Abadi faces stiff competition from political parties with closer ties to Iran.

The announcement that a ban on civilian cars and buses in all provinces was lifted came after hours of relatively low turnout in Baghdad.

The curfew had been in place since midnight the night before and many voters complained of having to walk more than 2.5 miles (4km) to reach polling stations.

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Iraq Elections

Iraq Elections

AP/PA Images

Iraq Elections

In central Baghdad, voters supporting Mr al-Abadi said they were doing so because they give him credit for Iraq’s military victory over IS.

Mr al-Abadi “took revenge” for civilians killed in insurgent attacks in Iraq “with the victory over Daesh”, said 71-year-old Felihah Hassan, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

After IS overran nearly a third of Iraq in the summer of 2014, the group launched waves of suicide bombings targeting civilians in Baghdad and other pockets of government-controlled territory.

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Iraq Elections

Iraq Elections

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Iraq Elections

With support from the US-led coalition and Iran, Mr al-Abadi oversaw a gruelling war against the extremists and declared victory over the group in December.

Since then, Baghdad has experienced a relative lull in insurgent-style attacks, but, in the run-up to Saturday’s vote, Iraqi security forces have imposed tight security measures including a curfew.

Despite Mr al-Abadi’s military achievements, Iraq continues to struggle with an economic downturn sparked in part by a drop in global oil prices, entrenched corruption and years of political gridlock.

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Iraq Elections

Iraq Elections

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Iraq Elections

The prime minister’s most powerful opponents are his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, and an alliance of candidates with close ties to the country’s powerful, mostly Shiite paramilitary forces.

The alliance, called “Fatah” – Arabic for “Conquest” – is headed by Hadi al-Amiri, a former minister of transport who became a senior commander of paramilitary fighters in the fight against the IS group.

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Iraq Elections

Iraq Elections

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Iraq Elections

Many of the candidates on his list were also paramilitary commanders before they cut their official ties with the force in order to seek office.

Jassim Mohsen, 58, who fought against IS with the paramilitary forces, said he was casting his vote for the alliance because of their personal sacrifices.

“I elected the Fatah list because they are the only ones who fought Daesh and gave blood,” he said.

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Hadi al-Amiri, commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (Karim Kadim/AP)

Hadi al-Amiri, commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (Karim Kadim/AP)

AP/PA Images

Hadi al-Amiri, commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (Karim Kadim/AP)

Another key player in the vote is Influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

He commanded fighters in the war against IS and headed a powerful militia that fought US forces in Iraq before that, but his election campaign has focused on social issues and eliminating government corruption.

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An elderly Iraqi man searches for his name before casting his ballot in Ramadi (Hadi Mizban/AP)

An elderly Iraqi man searches for his name before casting his ballot in Ramadi (Hadi Mizban/AP)

AP/PA Images

An elderly Iraqi man searches for his name before casting his ballot in Ramadi (Hadi Mizban/AP)

Some Sunnis voting on Saturday said they are hopeful that the election will help Iraq move beyond sectarian politics and become more inclusive.

Marginalisation of Iraq’s Sunnis under Mr al-Maliki is seen as a factor that allowed IS to rise in power in Iraq.

Mr al-Abadi has led a more cross-sectarian government marked by his ability to balance the interests of his two allies often at odds: the US and Iran.

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Iraq Elections

Iraq Elections

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Iraq Elections

In total there are 329 parliament seats at stake, with nearly 7,000 candidates from dozens of political alliances.

The vote will be conducted electronically for the first time in an effort to reduce fraud and polling centres have been set up for many of the country’s two million people who remain displaced by the war against IS.

The results of Saturday’s election are expected within 48 hours of the vote, according to the independent body overseeing the election.

Government formation negotiations are expected to drag on for months after that as the dozens of political parties attempt to cobble together a political bloc large enough to hold a majority of seats in parliament.

PA