Iraqis will head to the polls Thursday to vote on the country's first permanent parliament.
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The streets of Baghdad fell quiet today ahead of tomorrow's elections. Iraqis are selecting a permanent national assembly to replace the interim government chosen last January. President Bush has insisted in a series of speeches this week tomorrow's critical vote will mark a turning point in the march toward democracy in Iraq and in the greater middle east.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH:
We are living through a watershed moment in the story of freedom. Most of the focus now is on this week's elections, and rightly so. Iraqis will go to the polls to choose a government that will be the only constitutional democracy in the Arab world. Sunni Arabs who fail to participate in the January elections are now campaigning vigorously in this week's elections, and we can expect a higher turnout of Sunni voters.
As Sunnis join the political process, Iraqi democracy becomes more inclusive, and the terrorists and Saddamists are becoming marginalized. Freedom in Iraq will inspire reformers from Damascus to Tehran.
Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan agreed with the president that the election is important but added the challenge only begins there.
SEN. CARL LEVIN:
There's a chance for success in Iraq, providing the Iraqis put their political house in order. That's the key to it. To say total victory is a very open-ended commitment — it is unlimited in terms of our presence, total victory could take decades. I don't think the American public would accept that kind of an open-ended commitment.
U.S. officials have raised the stakes for the election with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, declaring yesterday, "What happens in Iraq will shape the future of the world."
Fifteen million eligible voters will choose most of the 275 national assembly seats. That parliament will in turn select a permanent government. Voting began Monday for soldiers and prisoners and continued yesterday for Iraqis living in the United States and 14 other countries around the world.
It will open tomorrow at Iraq's 33,000 polling stations. According to Iraq's election commission, more than 7,600 candidates are running on nearly 1,000 national party lists. More than 300 political groups have been certified, among them, the United Iraqi Alliance, a collection of Islamic parties from Iraq's Shiite majority; it's expected to win the most seats.
The current prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, is part of that group. Kurdish parties are estimated to take in about a quarter of the seats. Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's coalition took only about 14 percent last January after Sunnis boycotted the polls. This time around, more than a thousand Sunni clerics issued a religious decree, instructing their followers to take part.
Iraqi President Jalad Talabani echoed that appeal during a national television address.
PRESIDENT JALAD TALABANI (Translated): I call on you to participate actively in the Dec. 15 election. I express my trust in the importance of this election and its results. So my call to you, the Iraqi great nation, is only to remind you, let us make tomorrow a national celebration and an historic day for national unity and a victory over terrorism.
As in the last two elections, Iraq's borders have been sealed, curfews imposed, and traffic restricted in a bid to increase security. About 225,000 Iraqi troops will be deployed in and around polling places with American and coalition forces positioned farther away.
Ballots from tomorrow's vote will be counted in Baghdad. Results are not expected for several weeks.