BAGHDAD — In the years of sectarian strife unleashed by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Ali Mahmood had to flee death squads and rogue cops. The 28-year-old led a nomadic existence, moving from his native Basra to Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul and then back to Basra.
When it came time for Mahmood to vote in Iraq's provincial elections on Saturday, he was a no-show. The reason: The card he needed to vote was some 500 miles away, in Mosul.
Mahmood's predicament may explain why voter turnout was so low in Sunni Arab-majority areas, especially in the tense province of Anbar, where only 40 percent of voters showed up at the polls, according to Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission. The nationwide turnout was put at 51 percent.
Some have hailed early reports on Iraq's provincial elections as evidence of a step forward in the country's halting advance to democratic rule after six years of bloodshed. Thousands of Iraqis, however, couldn't vote because their names were missing from registration lists; in Hawsa, just west of Baghdad, thousands demonstrated over their exclusion.
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Too many voters didn't find their names on voter rolls, and, with a vehicle ban to prevent suicide bombers, many voters had to walk miles from their homes to get to their polling places, party officials said. The voting problems threaten to unleash violence in Anbar.
Election officials said that they have no plans to address the grievances, saying that displaced voters missed their opportunity to reregister.
"We spent 45 days advertising on TV, radio, and newspapers asking to make any chances, especially for displaced people," said Mohammed Saeed al Amjed, an IHEC spokesman. "The period was more than enough for the families to check or register their names, displaced or not."
In an effort to help displaced Iraqis, IHEC officials said that they set up 21 centers for displaced voters, including four in Baghdad. Some 2.9 million Iraqis updated their registration, the officials said. The International Organization for Migration estimates that more than 1.6 million Iraqis have been displaced since February 2006.
After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Sunni Arab militias aligned themselves with al Qaida in Iraq to battle a foreign occupation, and Shiites took advantage of their ascent to power, unleashing their own violence against Sunnis. Later, Sunni tribal leaders joined the Awakening Councils, tribal groups backed by the U.S. military to stamp out al Qaida in Iraq. Sectarian clashes escalated. Sect-based executions were common. Millions were displaced.
Ali Mahmood wasn't the only displaced person who couldn't vote.
After Omar Mohammed Abdul-Salam and his family received an envelope containing bullets and a "leave immediately" missive at their Baghdad home, they decamped to Fallujah in 2006.
On election day, Abdul-Salam bounced around from polling place to polling place, trying to find one where his name was registered. He said poll workers gave him the runaround.
"After the third center, I was told there was a voting center for displaced people," said Abdul-Salam, 37, a security guard. "I was so tired that I just went back home."
Abdul-Salam and other voters complained that the vehicle ban prevented them from reaching their assigned voting centers.
Election officials said they did their part to get out the word — something that voters and observers dispute. Both said that little was done to notify displaced voters that they could vote in a special center.
"The major reason (for low voter turnout in Sunni-majority provinces), in my opinion, is that the IHEC failed to mobilize sufficient efforts to clarify all the details to the voters in this complex situation," said Haider Hussein al Musawi, a political analyst and a consultant for non-government organizations. "There were shortcomings and confusion, especially in the area concerned with displaced families."
Meanwhile, tension is building among Sunni groups in Anbar, raising concerns of renewed violence in the largely Sunni province.
On Monday, tribal leaders dispatched gunmen to the streets amid charges that the Iraqi Islamic Party, which controls Anbar, rigged Saturday's vote in its favor. The Iraqi Security Forces ordered a nighttime curfew, and calm was restored.
"We'll use weapons and we'll be in the open streets if the Islamic Party wins the elections," Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha, a leader of the Awakening Council, told McClatchy.
Preliminary results are expected to be released by the end of the week.
(Daniel is a staff writer for The Miami Herald. Dulaymi is a McClatchy special correspondent in Fallujah. McClatchy special correspondents Hussein Kadhim and Sahar Issa contributed to this article.)
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