CAIRO — Iraqis voted Saturday for local councils in 12 provinces across the country, in the first popular election since the U.S. pullout in December 2011.
Turnout was light to moderate at polling stations across the capital, Baghdad, and in 11 other provinces where local council elections were held amid tight security. Around 8,000 candidates were reportedly vying for seats on the provincial councils.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki voted early at Baghdad's Rashid Hotel, along with several other top politicians. A handful of international observers were present to monitor the polling.
Observers say the vote is a barometer of Mr. Maliki's popularity in the lead-up to next year's parliamentary election. Rival Sunni politicians have been demanding that he step down, amid popular protests against him in western parts of the country.
No major violence was reported Saturday, despite widespread fears that Sunni insurgents might try to disrupt the vote. Mortar rounds and percussion bombs reportedly went off in six locations. General Othman al-Ghanami, a top election official, said violence was minimal.
He says that a security committee put together a detailed plan for the election, to ensure voters' safety and encourage them to turn out. He says that everyone knows how bad security once was, but that now, thank God, the situation is calm.
National election officials refused to extend voting beyond the official 5 p.m. closing time, despite a number of local requests to do so. Iraqi state TV reported that the vote count would get under way immediately in most places.
A number of complaints were reported, after voters at many polling stations indicated that their names were not on electoral lists and that officials refused to let them vote. A handful of middle-aged women argued with election officials in the town of Kut, insisting they should be allowed to vote.
They say that they are Iraqi citizens and that they cannot vote. They ask why their names are not on the electoral list even though they were told to come to a specific polling station for displaced people.
The election was the first since a disputed parliamentary poll in February 2009. Prime Minister Maliki came in second to former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in that election, but insisted on forming the next government. His Sunni rivals argue that he went on to marginalize their community, holding on to key ministries and refusing to respect a power-sharing agreement.