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Iraqi vote expected to bolster Maliki

Early returns from Saturday's provincial polls suggest that the Shiite prime minister's Dawa Party will be the big winner.

Minority vote: An elder from the Iraqi Yazadi community cast his ballot on Saturday in Sinjar, in northwestern Iraq.

Jane Arraf/The Christian Science Monitor

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Election day was largely free of violence as millions of Iraqis voted in provincial polls that appear to have bolstered Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's power in the south and weakened the Kurds' dominance in the north.

In parts of Iraq the mood was festive and hopeful. In Baghdad, children played soccer in streets free of cars as driving was mostly banned. Families wore their best clothes to walk to polls. Elsewhere, voting seemed oddly routine. The first postinvasion nationwide vote in 2005 – marred by fighting, threats, and boycotts – was considered by many as a democratic test run; Saturday's vote is seen as the real thing. 

"This will determine the direction Iraq goes in – now and in the future," says school principal Abbas Zaki, who woke at dawn to run a polling station in the northwestern city of Sinjar. "We don't want to talk anymore about this person against that person."

But while election monitors hailed a smooth vote, Iraqi officials reported that turnout was 51 percent – lower than expected, particularly in Baghdad, where only 40 percent of registered voters went to the polls.

Official results are expected midweek. But early returns indicated that Shiite candidates affiliated with Mr. Maliki's Dawa Party did well in the south, while in the north, Sunni Arab voters, many participating for the first time, were believed to have voted in significant numbers for al-Hadba candidates, a new party that has pledged to challenge Kurdish expansion.

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