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Iraq counts votes from first polls since US pullout

Iraq counts votes from first polls since US pullout
Baghdad:  Iraqi election officials were to begin counting votes on Sunday from the country's first elections since US troops departed, which served as a key test of its stability amid a spike in violence.

Attacks killed three people on election day, a fraction of those who died in a wave of violence preceding Saturday's polls, which seemed generally well-organised, according to diplomats touring polling stations and AFP journalists.

Turnout for the provincial vote was about 51 percent, according to officials from Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission.

But the credibility of the elections came into question, as 14 candidates were killed in attacks ahead of the polls and a third of Iraq's provinces -- all of them mainly Sunni Arab or Kurdish -- not voting due to security concerns and political disputes.

The vote for provincial councils, responsible for naming governors who lead local reconstruction, administration and finances, is seen as a key gauge of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's popularity ahead of a general election next year.

Every Iraqi who votes "is saying to the enemies of the political process that we are not going back," Maliki said on state television after casting his ballot at the Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.

Security was tight on Saturday, with voters searched before entering polling stations and numerous new checkpoints set up by soldiers and police in Baghdad.

For most of the day, only approved vehicles were allowed on the streets, which were largely deserted except for security forces, and groups of children who took the opportunity to play football.

Despite heightened security in Baghdad and elsewhere, militants were still able to carry out attacks, although the death toll was much lower than the preceding six days, when an average of 20 people were killed daily.

Nine mortar rounds, four bombings and five stun grenades, all outside Baghdad, killed three people and wounded two, officials said.

And gunmen dressed in police uniforms entered a polling station near Baquba, north of Baghdad, burned boxes of ballots, then escaped.

The elections, which came a decade after US-led forces ousted now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein, were the first since parliamentary polls in March 2010, and also the first time Iraqi forces secured elections without support from American or other international forces since 2003.

US troops withdrew in December 2011.

An estimated 13.8 million Iraqis were eligible to vote for more than 8,000 candidates, with 378 seats being contested.

Major issues affecting voters such as poor public services and rampant corruption were largely ignored during the campaign.
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