Iraqis Head to the Ballot Box, Change in the Air

And they're off. Iraqis by the thousands began lining up in the early hours this morning as special groups headed to the polls ahead of the nationwide election this weekend.

More than 800,000 security personnel, hospital workers, Iraqis living abroad and even prisoners are expected to cast their votes before all polls close at 5 p.m. Sunday. By comparison, only about 300,000 special-class Iraqis cast their ballots in the 2005 national election.

Officials expected a record-breaking turnout. Voter registration has soared this year to 18.9 million, from 14 million in 2005.

Although this is the third national election in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, this year's vote is significant for two reasons: It's the first time Iraq has had a national election as a fully sovereign nation, and it's the first time candidates' names, not just their parties, will appear on ballots.

The importance of the election is not lost on Iraqis. The country appears ready to set records not only for the number of Iraqis voting but for the sheer volume of democratic competition. With nearly 6,200 candidates vying for 325 seats, the election is one for the books.

Iraqis, many of whom have grown accustomed to violence and chaos, have been subjected recently to a new phenomenon, political campaigns run as full-on military campaigns. They have been bombarded with television advertisements, subjected to an explosion of campaign posters on every tree, pole, wall and empty space, and ambushed by political rallies and vehicles with loudspeakers extolling candidates' virtues.

The tough campaigning has led to violence; some real, some imagined. In the northern town of Mosul, Dr. Suha Abdullah was assassinated Feb. 7 while preparing for her campaign.

Christians have also come under attack in politically charged Mosul. Twelve Christians were killed last month and thousands have left the city out of concern for violence as the election neared, according to the U.N.

A Shiite family of eight were tortured and killed in Baghdad, their bodies found Feb. 22. Many candidates said the deaths were political but, although four people have been arrested, there has been no confirmation of that.

Iraq Elections Get Wall-to-Wall TV Coverage

Now that the voting has officially begun, government-owned TV station Iraqiya has gone wall-to-wall in its coverage; non-stop voting, analysts, anchors and opinions for the next three days. There is plenty to talk about.

Unlike in the United States, where strict rules govern what candidates can do to woo voters, few rules exist here in Iraq. The campaign trail is a bonanza of handouts and subtle and not-so-subtle bribes.

In the southern town of Nasariyah, one candidate handed out $10 prepaid phone cards to anyone who came to listen to his speech. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki lavished southern tribes with a $100,000 feast to lure them to his speech.

Candidates promise jobs, housing, greater oil revenues, electricity, water, better schools, a crackdown on corruption and more government services. Greater security is also promised but it's not as strong a focus as in previous elections. Iraqis are eager to get on with the business of rebuilding Iraq.

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