BAGHDAD, March 4, 2010 -- 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.
Another first: the United States and its role here barely rates as an issue in this election. There is little talk on the campaign trail of the U.S. military. Its current role widely accepted and its promise to pull out trusted, candidates spend little time talking about America. But the U.S. influence has changed as well. Borrowing from the election of President Obama, the word on almost all candidates' lips is "change."
Entifadh Qanbar, a candidate running under the banner of the Iraqi National Coalition who is closely associated with former deputy prime Ahmed Chalabi, is running a campaign on a shoestring by appealing to younger voters on Facebook and YouTube.
He can't afford the big-poster campaign and he's not handing out phone cards but he regularly meets with young Iraqis in his central Baghdad home exhorting them to trust him, saying he can bring real change to their lives.
"There must be a real change," Qanbar passionately explained to a group of young men dressed in jeans and baseball caps. "The people must not beg the government, the government does not own the oil and money, you own it, you the people."
The young men, all in their 20s, were from a prominent Shiite tribe located in predominately Sunni West Baghdad. Their biggest complaint: jobs. Many of them had temporary jobs or got day work on occasion but not a single one had regular employment.
"You are the power," Qanbar told them, "talk to your families and tell them to vote for us, we are the ones who will be there for you, we can help you and be with you, this government must not last."
Will Prime Minister Maliki Win Another Term?
It is possible voters will turn out the government of Prime Minister Maliki and his State of Law coalition. While the reliability of polls here is suspect, the campaign of Ayad Allawi, a secular nationalist who served as interim prime minister in 2004, appears to have gained momentum while Maliki's campaign has lost some of its early vigor.
Many Iraqis interviewed on the street said Allawi represented the best option for changing the course of Iraq and improving the economy here. Others argue that Maliki has seen Iraq through its roughest period and deserves the chance to lead an Iraq free from U.S. interference.
Yaroub Jihad, who sells artificial flowers in Baghdad's sprawling Shorja market, didn't want to say whom he's backing but said the economy is the No. 1 issue.
"I think the coming elections will be decisive," Jihad said, surrounded by flowers of unnatural brightness. "We the Iraqis will be able to determine the fate of Iraq."