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Special voting begins in watershed Iraqi election

Hospital patients, prison detainees cast their ballots for country\'s parliament

Special voting begins in watershed Iraqi election

Hospital patients, prison detainees and security forces were voting yesterday at the start of elections for a full-term parliament set to restore full sovereignty to war-torn Iraq nearly three years after the US-led invasion.

Three days before the rest of the country goes to the polls in the watershed vote, Iraqis being treated in hospitals, those being held in prisons and members of the security forces were casting their ballots.

Draconian security measures, similar to those enforced during two earlier elections this year, have been imposed to keep attacks at bay and minimise bloodshed during Thursday's main event.

Airports and borders will shut from tomorrow until Friday or Saturday, curfews extended and a ban on carrying weapons imposed for even those with permits. A five-day public holiday will also be in effect.

"We are hoping for a calm day as during the referendum," said Interior Minister Bayan Jabr Solagh.

A vote on the country's new constitution on October 15 passed without the spectacular suicide bombings that have become Iraq's trademark.

Yesterday's special polling booths opened at 7:00 am (local time) and were to close at 5:00 pm (local time), electoral official Farid Ayar confirmed.

In the northern Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, 19,800 hospital patients, detainees and security forces had registered to vote in 499 special polling booths, said Sheikh Latif, a local electoral commission official.

This week's election marks a new beginning for Iraq following the chaos of a lightning drive to oust Saddam Hussein, two transitional governments and the adoption of a constitution in October.

When the dust settles on the inevitable political horse trading, Iraqis will be left with a four-year parliament capable of carving out a new direction for the country, which is teetering on the tightrope of inter-communal tensions.

Moves towards democracy, marked by well-organized ballots and determined turnout, are a cornerstone of US policy in the Middle East with Washington increasingly focused on an ultimate exit strategy from Iraq.

But the success of the election and future prospects of stability hinge on turnout among the fallen Sunni elite who boycotted the January 30 election for a transitional parliament, Iraq's first free vote in half a century.

Iraq's 15.5 million voters will elect a 275-member assembly from around 7,000 candidates in the first full-term legislature since Saddam Hussein's regime fell in April 2003.

Double the number

The 228 political entities that have presented candidates are roughly double the 111 groups that contested the initial poll in January.

The first task of MPs will be to appoint, by a two-thirds majority, a president and two vice-presidents.

The presidency council will then have 15 days to name a prime minister, who will form a cabinet to be put to parliament for approval.

Overseas voting for Iraqi expatriates began yesterday and lasts for three days in 15 participating countries.

Meanwhile, Iraqi and British officials said they had no word on the fate of four Christian peace activists, more than a day after the expiration of a deadline set by kidnappers to kill them if all prisoners weren't released.

Interior Minister Bayan Jabr and British Defense Secretary John Reid said separately Sunday that their governments had no information about the hostages - who include an American, a Briton and two Canadians.

"We have no information," Jabr told The Associated Press in Baghdad when asked about the hostages. "From the beginning I advised foreigners not to move freely and we are always ready to protect them."

The previously unknown Swords of Righteousness Brigade, which kidnapped the activists two weeks ago, had said the hostages would be killed by Saturday unless all prisoners were released. The group originally set last Thursday as a deadline, but extended that date.

Another three foreigners have been kidnapped besides the four activists.

"They are all people who came to serve us, to serve our people," Jabr said.

When asked about the hostages, and the Briton in particular, Reid told Sky News television in London that officials were doing "everything possible to try and make sure his life is saved and that of his colleagues is protected."