By Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD, Feb 1 (Reuters) - Turnout in Iraq’s polls to elect councils governing 14 out of 18 provinces was lower than many had hoped due to voter registration problems and tight security.
The elections took place on Saturday without the major bloodshed that has plagued Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.
Five candidates were killed before the vote, some mortars were fired at but missed ballot stations on Saturday, and police said the house of a candidate of the mainly Sunni al-Hadba party was blown up in northern Iraq on Sunday, but no one was hurt.
Officials said on Sunday 7.5 million or 51 percent of the more than 14 million registered voters had braved car bans, body searches, barbed wire barricades and checkpoints to take part.
That was lower than the 60 percent or more that many political leaders, including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, had spoken of during the campaign. Participation in Iraq’s last vote, a parliamentary election in 2005, was 76 percent.
In Baghdad, turnout on Saturday appeared to have been just under 40 percent, the independent electoral commission said.
Commission chief Faraj al-Haidari attributed the low rate in the capital to problems with voter registration records, which were based on a government food rations distribution list.
He said many people who failed to find their names on voter lists at polling stations appeared not to have updated their addresses in the records and had probably gone to the wrong ballot station.
"It’s not our fault that some people couldn’t vote because they are lazy, because they didn’t bother to ask where they should vote," Haidari said.
Elsewhere in the country, voter participation rates varied greatly from province to province, he said.
In Nineveh and Diyala, turnout was 60 percent and 57 percent respectively. Sunni Arabs in these volatile provinces boycotted the 2005 election and have since been excluded from power.
The relatively healthy turnout could signal high participation by Sunnis, allowing them to potentially regain some clout at the expense of ethnic Kurds in Nineveh and a mixture of groups, including Shi‘ite Muslims, in Diyala.
U.S. officials say they view Sunni participation in the vote in the two provinces as key to cutting support in the population for remnants of insurgent groups, including al Qaeda.
In the largely Sunni western desert province of Anbar, where few participated in the last elections after al Qaeda and other Sunni Islamist insurgents threatened to kill those who did, turnout this Saturday reached only 40 percent.
"Despite the low level of participation, which hurt us a lot, we are happy because our people who boycotted the previous election took part in this one," said Alaa Maki, a leader of the traditional Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party.
The turnout levels may be respectable for a provincial poll in a country only just beginning to adopt competitive democracy and where scepticism about politicians runs high, analysts say.
"The lower turnout I think would reflect cynicism but also world-weariness with the vote. You had that huge tidal wave of expectation in 2005 ... and that crashed up against the reality of a fairly incompetent ruling elite," said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the University of London. (Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim and Michael Christie; Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Katie Nguyen)