First free Iraqi election begins; insurgents strike

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Sunday, January 30, 2005

IRAQ –The first free elections in over 50 years have begun in Iraq, via proportional representation, to choose members for a 275-strong assembly that will then draw up a constitution.

Interim President Ghazi Al-Yawar was among the first to cast a ballot.

However violence has already begun to overshadow the event, both inside Iraq and abroad, with a suicide bomber blowing himself up close to a polling place in western Baghdad, and a riot and bomb scare in Sydney, Australia.

According to police reports four people were killed and at least nine injured in the Baghdad bombing. A total of at least 36 people have so far been killed in Iraq today in various suicide bombing since the opening of the polls.

As well as suicide bombings, insurgents have used mortars to attack the people. In southern Baghdad they killed at least two people, and in Hilla one person was killed. Mortar rounds have also been fired on other cities, including Mosul and Baquba.

28,000 polling booths in 5,578 stations opened at 7 am (local time), closely guarded by both coalition troops and Iraqi security forces. Turn out has so far been described as "sporadic", with queues in Shia areas but few people voting in Sunni areas.

"Thank God, thank God." said the Interim President, "Blessed are the Iraqi elections. We greet all Iraqi people and urge them not to give up their rights, to vote for Iraq, elect Iraq and not to give up on Iraq"

"Deep in my heart, I feel that Iraqis deserve free elections," he went on, "This will be our first step towards joining the free world and being a democracy that Iraqis will be proud of."

Voting abroad

Booths have also been set up in many countries outside Iraq to allow expatriates a chance to vote in the elections, however Iraqis in countries without booths are complaining about not being able to use postal votes, and those in countries which do have booths complain that there are not enough of them.

Iraqis in New Zealand would have to travel to Australia to lodge their vote. "There is a lot of interest in this election. Not all the Iraqis here have passports yet, so not so many can travel. I'm a little sad that we can't contribute to this," said Wellington's Iraqi Association spokesman Jafar Abdulghani yesterday. "Our association would have been very interested to invite the organisers to help us with voting." There are currently around 7000 Iraqis in New Zealand who are eligible to vote.

Fifty people rioted in Sydney, Australia, when about 20 protesters yelled insults at voters leaving the center, setting off the melee. Voting organizers said the protesters were Wahhabis, members of a sect of Sunni Islam associated with militants in Iraq. Police said there no were arrests and no reports of injuries. After the fighting was contained, an unattended backpack found near the center led police to close the center and cordon off the area.

It turned out not to be a bomb, but polling was extended. Thair Wali, an Iraqi adviser for the International Organization for Migration, said the fight broke out after the protesters began using cameras and cell phones to take pictures of voters leaving the station. "This is scary for the people, taking photos of the voting," he said.

Iraqi nationals abroad have said they failed to register to vote, fearing terrorists would then target relatives in Iraq.

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