by Fu Yiming, Gao Shan
BAGHDAD, Jan. 30 (Xinhua) -- Iraqis face a milestone
of reshaping the political landscape of the war-torn state on Saturday, as over
70 percent of its 15 million eligible voters are to cast their ballots in
hundreds of polling stations across the nation's 14 provinces.
In Saturday's regional parliamentary elections, the first nationwide election in three years, Iraqis will choose leaders for those provincial councils, when more than 14,400 candidates, about3,900 of them women, are competing for 444 seats.
A resident looks at the election campaign posters of a candidate in Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, Jan. 29, 2009. (Xinhua/Reuters Photo)
As for the other four out of its total 18 provinces,
elections will be held later in the three semi-autonomous provinces ruled by
Kurds and the one surrounding oil-rich Kirkuk. Votes there were postponed
indefinitely since ethnic groups, namely Shiite, Sunni Arabs and Kurds there
still yet to reach a consensus on a power-sharing formula.
TEST FOR MALIKI'S
The vote is effectively an opinion poll on Prime
Minister Nuri al-Maliki personally since he took office in 2006, and more
importantly on whether this "Iron man" is able to continue his legend by finally
winning the national election in December.
Al-Maliki, a Shiite from Dawa, a small political
party, was widely seen as a weak and transitory leader. But he soon won a
general appreciation by tactfully filled rifts among political sects, religions
His image as a peoples' prime minister has won him
increasing support, as he emphasized on secularism, reinforcing central
government power while maintaining regional rights, and fighting against
Additionally, al-Maliki's government gained other
political points after he reached successfully with Washington a new security
agreement last year, stipulating a set timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal,
something that former President George W. Bush had long resisted.
All that has significantly boosted al-Maliki's
prestige among Iraqis who are anxious to end foreign occupation as well as their
Latest public opinion poll released by the National
Media Center (NMC) showing that al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition got the most
support of 23 percent, far ahead of former Prime MinisterIlyad Allawi's and
Ibrahim al-Jaafari's parties. Al-Maliki also came in first at 23 percent as
Iraqis' next prospective prime minister.
Al-Maliki isn't running this time, but he has
campaigned extensively for his Dawa party, especially in the south where his
followers are locked in a fierce battle with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council,
the country's biggest Shiite party.
If Dawa runs well in this election, analysts believe
that al-Maliki's foundation will be solidified and hold a premiere stance for
the national election in December.
¡¡¡¡LOCAL POWER RESTRUCTURING
Currently, Iraq has three major groups holding sway
separately, with Sunni Arabs controlling mostly west and middle provinces,
Shiites in south and Kurds in north.
Considering the vital importance of Saturday's
regional elections as candidates chosen will later group the provincial
councils, candidates from all three sects are scheduled to participate
extensively for power.
The outcome will show which party stands the best
chance of success in parliamentary elections expected by the end of the year.
Last national election in January 2005 was wracked by
insurgency and Shiite-Sunni conflict that nearly plunged the country into
full-scale civil war.
The widely boycott by Sunni candidates consequently
marginalized themselves, and enabled a disproportionate share of power, with
Shiites and Kurds controlling seats even in provinces with big Sunni
Analysts believe that Saturday's elections serve as a
"double-edge sword," meaning that the longtime violence waged by Sunni
insurgents could be neutralized if the sect are given a fairer share of power,
but the power restructuring in which some other groups who considered treated
unfair could result in a rebound of violence, in northern regions in particular,
where Arabs fight fiercely with Kurds for power.
¡¡¡¡COULD ENDANGER OBAMA'S TROOP WITHDRAW PLAN
While countless posters and slogans fly in almost
every streets and corners, days ahead these provincial elections are not quiet.
Three Sunni candidates were brutally assassinated by
unknown gunmen overnight Friday, signaling security situation here is still
fragile, and might worsen during such a high-profile event.
Despite shadow of violence lingers, citizens are
eager to vote for someone who they believe can bring in their life more security
Yet, in contrast to Iraq's three previous ballots
since the U.S.-led invasion, which were held in the shadow of fierce sectarian
conflicts, this one is strikingly open. Names of candidates participated and
their parties represented are listed clearly for ballots.
A credible election without significant violence
would prove that the security improvements of the past 18 months are taking
hold. But a deeply flawed one, hurt by violence and allegations of widespread
fraud, could affect U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to call back more
than 142,000 U.S. troops within 16 months.
Immediately after taking office, Obama underscored
that U.S. would end its "role in Iraq" as quickly as possible, and exit the
battlefield "responsibly." However, he admitted a tough choice at hand after his
inspection from the Pentagon, and said he "would listen to the military's
U.S. army generals warned that hasty troops withdraw
could be disastrous, and could reverse the current security gains. Given the
elections dragged Iraq back to chaos, chances that U.S. troops withdraw being
postponed would be high.
After inspecting in person security measures in
polling stations in Baghdad, Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top U.S. commander in
Iraq said Thursday that he would keep a close eye on Saturday's elections.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs
of Staff, also said the Pentagon was closely watching the elections because
their outcome "will be a big indicator for 2009, which is a big year."