Streets in Baghdad were eerily quiet one day before Thursday's election, with police strictly enforcing a traffic ban. Only the noise from an occasional police siren, sporadic gunshot or U.S. helicopter could be heard. Borders and airports have also been closed and the nighttime curfew has been extended.
"There really is a sense of expectation here in the Iraqi capital where normal daily life has been frozen ahead of tomorrow's votes,"
"This is a real opportunity for a turning point, for a milestone for Iraq to permanently elect a government and take control of their own country,"
Iraq's election commission said that it had registered 6,655 candidates running on 996 lists and had certified 307 political groups — either in the form of single candidates or parties — and 19 coalitions.
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Baghdad is Iraq's biggest electoral district with 2,161 candidates running for 59 of the 275 seats in Iraq's parliament, according to commission's executive director, Adel Ali al-Lami. There are 33,000 polling stations around Iraq.
The Interior Ministry denied reports that a tanker truck filled with thousands of blank ballots had been confiscated in a town near the Iranian border.
More than 1,000 Sunni clerics issued a religious decree instructing their followers to vote Thursday, boosting American hopes the election will encourage more members of the disaffected minority to abandon the insurgency.
While some prominent clerics with links to the insurgency have avoided calling on their followers to vote, the edict is likely to encourage many Sunnis to go to the polls. They hope that more participation will lessen the ability of the Shiite majority to abuse them.
Many Sunnis boycotted the January election, enabling rival Shiites and Kurds to win most of the seats in the interim parliament — a development that sharpened communal tensions and fueled the insurgency. But unlike January's vote, which elected a government which was to last for less than one year, the term of the new government will be four times that.
Six insurgent groups, including al Qaeda in Iraq, have said they would not attack polling stations. But they all vowed to continue their war against U.S.-led coalition forces.
Three of Iraq's leading politicians agreed Tuesday that a speedy withdrawal by foreign troops before Iraqi forces are ready would cause chaos.
But the three — former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and Sunni Arab politician Tariq al-Hashimi — disagreed on the description of U.S. and other foreign troops. Barzani described them as "forces of liberation," while al-Hashimi said they were occupiers.
The three leaders, speaking from Baghdad, appeared in a debate on the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television. Such debates are rare in the Arab world, where candidates mainly rely on rallies attended by hand-picked followers.
Their comments were noteworthy because they represent important constituencies in the Thursday vote.
Barzani heads the Kurdish autonomous region in the north and is among the country's most powerful politicians. Allawi heads a religiously mixed ticket in the Thursday election. Al-Hashimi represents a major Sunni Arab coalition.
Allawi, a secular Shiite, said an early U.S. withdrawal "will lead to a catastrophic war." And al-Hashimi, whose party has been sharply critical of the U.S. role, said he looked forward to "my country's liberation" but not "to be followed by chaos." Allawi also said early U.S. withdrawal "will lead to a catastrophic war."
Al-Hashimi criticized President George W. Bush for saying the United States is fighting terrorism in Iraq.
"Why should Iraqis pay a bill for something they have nothing to do with?" said al-Hashimi, a candidate for parliament. "Terrorism is not the problem of Iraqis."
Washington hopes a large turnout among Sunni Arabs will produce a government that can win the trust of the minority community that is the backbone of the insurgency. That would in turn allow the United States and its coalition partners to start withdrawing their troops next year.
Iraqis living outside the country began voting Tuesday in the United States and 14 other countries. Strong turnout was seen in polling stations around the world, including in Syria, Jordan and Iran, where Associated Press reporters witnessed heavier turnout compared to Iraq's January elections.