BAGHDAD/MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqis voted on Saturday in the first election since defeating Islamic State, although voters said they had scant hope their new leaders would stabilize a country beset by conflicts, economic hardship and corruption.
Depending on the outcome, the poll could bolster Iran’s role in Iraq and the Middle East. Aside from geopolitics that have deepened sectarian divisions, Iraq faces challenges after a three-year war against Islamic State which cost the country about $100 billion.
Much of the biggest northern city of Mosul was reduced to rubble. Security is still threatened by sectarian violence, which erupted into a civil war at the height of a 2003-2011 U.S. occupation that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The vote’s victors will have to contend with fallout from U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of a nuclear deal with Iran, a move Iraqis fear could turn their country into a theater of conflict between Washington and Tehran.
The three main ethnic and religious groups — the majority Shi’ite Arabs and minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds — have been at odds for decades, and sectarian divisions remain as deep as ever even though they joined forces to fight Islamic State.
“I will participate but I will mark an ‘X’ on my ballot. There is no security, no jobs, no services. Candidates are just looking to line up their pockets, not to help people,” said Jamal Mowasawi, a 61-year-old butcher.
The three main candidates for prime minister, all Shi’ites, are incumbent Haider al-Abadi, his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki and Shi’ite militia commander Hadi al-Amiri. All need the support of Iran, which has economic and military sway in Iraq as the primary Shi’ite power in the region.
Abadi is considered the frontrunner by analysts, but victory is far from certain for the man who raised hopes he could forge unity when he came to office four years ago, after Islamic State swept through northern Iraq and Maliki was pushed out.
Abadi solidified his standing with the victory over Islamic State, which had occupied a third of the country. In office he reached out to minority Sunnis, although he also alienated Kurds after crushing their bid for independence.
But he lacks charisma and has failed to improve the economy and tackle corruption, and cannot rely solely on votes from his community as the Shi’ite voter base is split this year. Even if Abadi’s Victory Alliance list wins the most seats, he still must negotiate a coalition government, which must be formed within 90 days of the election.
Amiri, 63, spent more than two decades fighting Saddam from exile in Iran and leads the Badr Organisation, the backbone of the volunteer forces that fought Islamic State. Victory for Amiri would be a win for Iran, which is locked in proxy wars for influence across the Middle East with Saudi Arabia.
But many Iraqis are disillusioned with war heroes and politicians who have failed to restore state institutions and provide badly needed health and education services.
Some people expressed frustrations at technical problems which kept them from voting in Falluja, which used to support Saddam, was devastated by battles between U.S. troops and insurgents during the occupation and is now far from recovering from the war against Islamic State militants.
“I have to vote it’s very important. My voice is going to waste. Are they telling me no election? Shall I just go home?,” asked laborer Khalid Abd, 65.
Maliki is seeking a comeback, casting himself as a Shi’ite champion after being sidelined in the wake of the Islamic State advance. Opponents say his sectarian policies during eight years in power had created an atmosphere that enabled Islamic State to gain sympathy among Sunnis as it swept across Iraq in 2014.
Both Maliki and Amiri are seen as closer to Tehran than Abadi, so a win for either would be interpreted as a setback for Washington.
The post of prime minister has been reserved for a Shi’ite, the speaker of parliament is a Sunni, and the ceremonial presidency has gone to a Kurd – all three chosen by parliament.
More than 7,000 candidates in 18 provinces are running this year for 329 parliamentary seats. More than 24 million of Iraq’s 37 million people are eligible to vote in the election, the fourth since Saddam’s fall.
In Kirkuk, an oil city disputed by Kurds and the Baghdad government, 90-year-old Najm al-Azzawi has witnessed Iraq’s decades of upheaval: Saddam’s military adventures, international sanctions, the U.S. occupation, sectarian bloodshed and Islamic State’s reign of terror. But he has not lost hope.
“God save Iraqis from the darkness they have been in,” he said. “It is the most joyful thing to vote.”
Security was tight in Mosul, still largely in ruins from the war against Islamic State. Transport was shut for security reasons and voters had difficulty reaching the polls.
“We need new faces not this group of corrupt politicians currently in Baghdad,” said Ahmed Noor, a shop owner.
In West Mosul’s Wadi al-Hajr neighborhood, several older voters arrived to be told their polling station was several districts over.
“I can’t walk, I can barely move, how am I supposed to walk an hour to the polling station? Both my sons fled Mosul under Daesh and now live overseas,” said Saadia Ahmed Hussein, using a derogatory Arabic term for Islamic State.
She wept at the entrance to the polling station, clutching her cane. “There’s no one to take me by car.”
Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Peter Graff