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Iraqis Weigh Secularism, Religion in Vote

Iraqi turnout was high in the country's election for a new National Assembly, perhaps more than the 60 percent of registered voters who showed up in the first national elections in January, and the October constitutional referendum. Voters selected from more than 6,000 candidates on 300 different party lists to choose the 275-member parliament. The participation of the Sunnis in this election, and the rising popularity of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, may provide a more secular, nationalist alternative to the United Alliance that rules the provisional government.

Despite sporadic gunfire, tanks cruising loudly down main streets, and helicopters circling overhead, the mood in the Iraqi capital today, as on other voting days, was festive.

Families made the trip to voting stations together. Businessman Nabil Hal Hajnaj walked with his wife and her sister out of a polling station in the largely Shi'ite Karrada neighborhood. Both women wore traditional Muslim head coverings. But Mr. Hajnaj said he would vote for the coalition led by the more secular former prime minster, Iyad Allawi.

"I think he will do better in security," he said. "He will not create divisions between Sunnis, Shi'ites, and Christians."

But his wife, Hoda Abbas, had a different idea.

"I like the United Iraqi Alliance," she said "They are the Shi'ites and they suffered most under Saddam, so they deserve to be in power."

The differences in this family illustrate one of the biggest issues facing Iraqi voters: Should the country remain one of the more secular states in the Arab world or should it become more Islamic.

But security also plays a large part in this election, and Iraqis criticize Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, who is a member of the United Iraqi Alliance, on his failure to clamp down on the insurgency.

Jafr Sabr Fudlich, 18, a student at Baghdad Technology College, says he is voting for former Prime Minister Allawi.

"Back when Allawi was prime minster, the security was better," he said.

At another polling station about a kilometer away, election workers tear enormous ballots out of stacks of 100 as voters enter the six different rooms that hold voting booths. In this section of Baghdad, there appears to have been enough ballots for all the voters. But in some Sunni areas, where turnout was far higher than expected, some polling stations ran out.

The participation of the Sunnis in this election has led some in the U.S. and Iraqi government to hope the religious sect that forms the backbone of the insurgency can be brought into the political process. Sunnis boycotted the first national election on January 31, which left them out of the writing of the constitution and other important political decisions.

The Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance Coalition, which dominates the current assembly, wants a constitution that allows several Shi'ite provinces in the south to form a semi-autonomous regional government, like the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Both the north and south are rich in oil, but the middle of the country, where Sunnis are located, is not. The Sunnis were largely left out of this decision, as they had no power in the parliament.

In an agreement worked out in the final constitutional negotiations, the national assembly members elected Thursday, and seated by December 31, will decide on the question of autonomous regions in Iraq, in addition to other important questions like taxation and regional vs. federal control of oil revenues.