BASRA, Iraq — With an air of practiced efficiency, Iraqis strolled down the potholed, trash-strewn streets of this oil rich city to vote yesterday.
Far from the explosions that marred voting in Baghdad, the mood in Iraq's second largest city was much like the day's weather: bright and full of sunshine.
In the country's fifth exercise in democracy since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, turnout here was pegged at a respectable 60 percent.
"I've got a good feeling that the coming years are going to bring us prosperity and a good life," said Bushra Younes, 33, after casting her ballot and dipping her finger in the iconic ink that has become a symbol of Iraq's fledgling democracy.
The southern city of Basra is something of a microcosm of Iraq, mostly Shiite but with a sizable Sunni minority. It also has a recent violent past, as a battleground for competing Shiite militias. Their reign ended in 2008 when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered the Iraqi army to crush them in an operation known as the Charge of the Knights.
The move earned al-Maliki huge popularity on the streets and a big win in last year's provincial elections, making him the favorite to lead in this race. But he appeared to be facing a tough challenge both from the Iraqi National Alliance, a coalition of mostly religious Shiite parties, and, in a surprise showing, the secular Iraqiya slate headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
Among those voting for Allawi was Wafa Tariq, 47, who had supported al-Maliki in previous elections but said she had decided it was time for a change.
"You can't understand the oppression we're facing," she said. "There's trash everywhere and we're not seeing any improvements. We don't forget what al-Maliki did in the Charge of the Knights and I salute him for that. But he's very slow. We have hopes for Allawi."
The outcome of the vote here, and elsewhere across the Shiite south, will be critical in determining who gets to lead the next government. Shiites account for a majority of Iraq's population, and in the last national election, in 2005, Shiite parties ran together under a broad umbrella endorsed by their top religious authority, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, leaving little doubt as to who would emerge the winner.
This time around, the coalition has split, and Sistani has remained strictly neutral, making for a wide open and fiercely competitive race in which no party is likely to win an overall majority. The biggest fear here is that one or other of the parties will refuse to accept defeat and resort instead to arms, tipping the city back into conflict. Just as worrisome is the prospect of a protracted deadlock between several equally placed slates in which political tensions spill out into the streets.
Results aren't expected for several days.
"There could be trouble after the elections, and I fear things could escalate into violence," said Faez Abid Hassan, 34, a storekeeper who voted for a candidate loyal to the Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. "When they compete for positions maybe they will turn to guns."
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Some voters expressed anxiety about predictions of a good showing for Allawi in Basra but especially in Sunni areas elsewhere in the country. The exclusion of several hundred Sunni and secular candidates because of their alleged ties to the outlawed Baath Party of Saddam Hussein, including several prominent members of Allawi's list, has heightened fears among many Shiite voters that Baathists are seeking a comeback.
"If Allawi wins it means the Baathists will return and that is a terrifying prospect for us," said civil servant Safah Qassem, 42, who says he chose the Shiite alliance because its leaders had led the way in banning Baathists. "If that happens, there will definitely be trouble."
But Wasfi Kanani, 59, shrugged off the fears. "Maybe there will be some bombs, but we Iraqis are used to that," he said. "There will be new alliances, and it could go on a long time, but at the end of the day somebody will get the chair and everybody will have to accept him, winners and losers."
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