Baghdad, Iraq U.S. troops are staying a mile away from the polling stations for today's national elections. But they're close by - ready to back up tens of thousands of Iraqi security forces if called upon.
In the northern city of Mosul, soldiers in Stryker armored personnel carriers, the U.S. Army's most advanced infantry vehicle with satellite-linked computers, have mapped out every polling station and listed the mobile phone numbers for local polling officials and Iraqi officers to make sure they can respond quickly.
The Americans moved into a supporting role late Wednesday after carefully coaching Iraqi police, who took up positions on rooftops, and Iraqi soldiers, who set up an outer perimeter. U.S. troops and sniffer dogs first checked thousands of polling stations.
A coalition of Shiite religious parties, which dominate the current government, was expected to win the largest number of seats - but not enough to form a new administration without alliances with rival groups.
The Bush administration hopes the new parliament will include more Sunni Arabs to help establish a government that can lure other Sunnis away from the insurgency. Such a development would make it possible for the United States and its partners to start to draw down their troops next year.
High turnout expected
With Sunni insurgent groups promising not to attack the polls, voter turnout was expected to be high.
However, police arrested two suspected insurgents carrying 72 bombs, police Lt. Col. Ahmed Hajoul said. He said the pair said they planned to hide the bombs Wednesday night in the largely Shiite city of Hillah to explode when the polls opened.
A loud explosion was also heard in central Baghdad shortly before 1 a.m. today, hours after police said several mortar shells exploded in southwest Baghdad, setting some shops on fire.
There were also signs of the sectarian tensions that threaten the nation's future and the Bush administration strategy: Angry Shiites protested what they considered to be a televised slur on the country's religious leadership, and rumors spread of ballots smuggled in from Iran.
Poisoned water rumors
Rumors also swept the Iraqi capital early today that the water supply had been poisoned after warnings against drinking tap water were broadcast through mosque loudspeakers, but they were quickly denied by the Health Ministry.
Nevertheless, most of Baghdad's streets were eerily quiet Wednesday, with police strictly enforcing a traffic ban. Only an occasional siren, a sporadic gunshot, a U.S. helicopter or shouts from boys playing soccer could be heard.
Up to 15 million Iraqis were to choose 275 members of the new parliament from 7,655 candidates running on 996 tickets, representing Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish, Turkomen and sectarian interests across a wide political spectrum. Iraqis do not vote for individual candidates, but instead for lists - or tickets - that compete for the seats in each of the 18 provinces.
Some preliminary returns were expected late today, but final, complete returns could take days if not weeks.
"Let us make tomorrow a national celebration, a day of national unity and victory over terrorism and those who oppose our democratic march," President Jalal Talabani told a nationwide television audience.
Election of the new parliament, which will serve a four-year term, marks the final step in the U.S. blueprint for democracy. The vote will cap a process that included the transfer of sovereignty last year, selection of an interim parliament Jan. 30 and ratification of the constitution in October. The new parliament will name a government, including a new prime minister.
"In spite of the violence, Iraqis have met every milestone," President Bush said in Washington.
For the Bush administration, the stakes are nearly as high as for the Iraqis. A successful election would represent a much-needed political victory at a time of growing doubts about the war among the American public.
"We are in Iraq today because our goal has always been more than the removal of a brutal dictator," Bush said. "It is to leave a free and democratic Iraq in its place."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also urged the Iraqi people to vote, saying they have another "historic opportunity" to shape the country's political future.
Insurgent threats and boycott calls kept many Sunnis at home in the January election despite a national turnout of nearly 60 percent. That enabled Shiites and Kurds to dominate the current legislature, sharpening communal tensions and fueling the insurgency.
This time, more Sunnis Arabs were in the race, and changes in the election law to allocate the majority of seats by district all but guaranteed strong Sunni representation.
More than 1,000 Sunni clerics called on their followers to vote, and insurgent groups, including al-Qaida in Iraq and the Islamic Army in Iraq, pledged not to attack polling stations even though they oppose the political process.
U.S. officials optimistic
As a sign of Sunni interest, mosques, walls, houses and lamp posts in Baghdad's Sunni district of Azamiyah were festooned with posters of Sunni candidates. In January, few people in Azamiyah voted, and some polling stations didn't even open.
U.S. officials were optimistic about a heavy turnout in Fallujah, the Sunni insurgent stronghold captured by American forces last year. Campaign posters were plastered Wednesday over blast walls along the street, at police checkpoints and on the walls of houses.
"In January, turnout was low. In the referendum it was tremendous and tomorrow it will be better," said John Kale Weston, U.S. State Department spokesman in the city.
Still, U.S. officials warned that a successful election alone will not end the insurgency. Also needed is a government capable of reconciling Iraq's disparate groups.
The Americans are also eager to avoid protracted negotiations to choose a new prime minister and Cabinet - a process that dragged on for three months after the last vote.
"I think the elections are a positive step, but it will not be enough to ensure stability. More steps need to be taken. There should be a good government that represents all Iraqis, and the security forces also should be formed by all Iraqi sects," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told Al-Jazeera television.
His comments about the security forces referred to Sunni Arab complaints that the Shiite-dominated army and police have abused Sunnis. On Tuesday, Khalilzad said at least 120 abused prisoners had been found in two detention centers run by the Interior Ministry since November.
On the eve of the election, sectarian tensions swelled over what Shiite political parties considered an offensive remark made by an Iraqi Shiite panelist on Al-Jazeera. Fadel al-Rubaei said Shiite clerics should not take part in politics, and he accused them of conspiring with the Americans against the mostly Sunni insurgents.
Report angers Shiites
The statements angered many Shiites, including many who did not see the Al-Jazeera broadcast but saw reports about it on an Iraqi station, Al-Furat, owned by the biggest Iraqi Shiite party, which used the report to fire up its supporters.
Hours later, thousands of people chanted anti-Al-Jazeera slogans in the streets of the Baghdad neighborhoods of Sadr City and Karradah, and in major cities throughout the Shiite south.
In Nasiriyah, Shiite protesters set fire to a building housing the offices of former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, and the Iraqi Communist Party.
Officials at the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera were not available for comment. But Baghdad correspondent Atwar Bahjat told The Associated Press she resigned from her job "in protest of what the guest of the station said."
Rumors swept Baghdad that a tanker truck filled with thousands of blank ballots had been smuggled into the country from Shiite-dominated Iran. Many Sunnis consider Shiite political parties as agents of Iran.
The Interior Ministry denied any attempt to smuggle ballots, and the election commission said the only trucks in the area were its own delivering election materials to polling stations.