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Iraqi Polls Close in Landmark Election

Iraqis voted for new provincial councils in a key test of the country's stability. It is the first major election in four years and security was tight with voters passing through stringent security checks to reach the polling stations.

It is the country's first ballot since 2005 and despite threats of violence, the voting went off mostly peaceful. In the run up to the election Iraq sealed its borders, shut airports, banned vehicles and deployed thousands of security forces to try and ensure a quiet polling day. Jawad al-Bolani is Iraq's Interior Minister. He says, "Iraqis are heading to the polling stations satisfactorily. We provided them with security to achieve this wide participation."

Voting ended after 11 hours. Balloting was extended for one hour to accommodate voters.

The election is seen by Washington and Baghdad as a measure of Iraq's stability, putting to the test the recent sharp fall in sectarian violence and insurgent attacks. The vote will also offer Sunni Arabs, who boycotted the last provincial elections, a chance to assume a share of local power.

With the help of the United Nations, Iraq is holding elections in 14 of its 18 provinces. More than 14-thousand candidates have joined the races, making it the first time large numbers of Iraqi politicians have openly campaigned since the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. They are battling for 440 seats on influential provincial councils across Iraq.

The poll is also expected to show whether Iraqi forces are capable of maintaining peace as U.S. troops begin to pull back. Officials are hopeful a successful election will pave the way for national elections later this year. Officials said counting would begin on Sunday with preliminary results not expected before Tuesday.