01/20/2009, 00.00
IRAQ
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Iraqis set to vote in new provincial councils

Voting will take place in 14 of the country’s 18 provinces. More than 14,000 candidates are running for 440 seats. Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani appeals to Iraqis to vote. Some 60 candidates have had their application to run rejected for irregularities.
Baghdad (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Iraqis will go to the polls on 31 January to elect their new provincial councils in 14 of the country’s 18 provinces. Excluded are the three Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq and the province of Tamim which includes the disputed city of Kirkuk, claimed by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, and key for the control of its surrounding area’s huge oil reserves.

These provincial elections are also an important test to see how well the country can hold together on the path towards democracy and stability, much vaunted goals before the 2005 elections but challenged to the extreme by years of violence on the ground.

To ensure security Iraqi authorities are going to deploy large numbers of security forces, backed by the Americans who still have 140,000 troops stationed in the country.

Voters will be able to choose among 400 parties and groups fielding 14,431 candidates for 440 provincial council seats.

Iraq's electoral commission is investigating allegations that nearly 60 candidates for the provincial elections have submitted fraudulent certificates for their educational degrees. The law requires candidates to have certain educational qualifications to run.

These elections will be a key moment for the government and the country before next December general elections, the real litmus test for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his cabinet.

Western observers are optimistic about the vote, stressing that the first cycle of elections in 2005 was a milestone but a single election doesn't make a democracy; only by a series of polls can one measure the country’s stabilisation.

In fact violence and attacks are still commonplace in Iraq. However, they are way down from just 18 months ago, when monthly death tolls ten times as high as now. Back then, holding a vote might have been impossible.

As the vote approaches voters are increasingly urged to cast their ballot. Grand Ayatollah al Sistani, the country’s top Shia religious leader, reiterated his neutrality in the vote.

“His eminence urges all residents, men and women, to participate in the coming elections, and stresses not to boycott it despite not being totally satisfied with the previous electoral experience,” a statement from Sistani's office said.

Followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, head of the Mehdi Army, are keeping a low profile. They are not standing as a group, or called for a boycott but have backed independent lists of candidates.

In Sunni Arab areas in western and central Iraq, tribal groups known as "Awakening Councils" will participate in the election for the first time.

According to a survey by the National Media Center, that polled 4,570 Iraqis, 73 per cent of respondents would vote in the ballot.

Nearly a third of those questioned said improving local services was their priority, and four in 10 hoped that secular, not religious, candidates would win.

More than half also said the work of the current provincial councils was acceptable or better.

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