BAGHDAD, Iraq — The entire nation of Iraq is breathing a collective sigh of relief after their provincial elections passed with almost no violence on Saturday.

Although voter turn out was lower than expected, the peaceful provincial elections mark a major turning point for Iraq as calm seems to be returning after nearly six years of war. Now many Iraqis are looking to whoever wins to bring an end to sectarian discord and focus on rebuilding the war-ravaged nation.

“This [election] is an opportunity for Iraqis to prove themselves to the world and show that leaders here can take back control of the country,” said Ahmed Abdul Zahra, after casting his ballot in Sadr City. Now “these leaders [candidates] must show their commitment to national unity.”

Prior to the election five candidates were assassinated, however, on election day, aside from several ineffective mortar attacks and other small incidents, the day was largely free of violence. In Baghdad a current of hope and celebration surged through the city. Families took leisurely strolls while virtually every block had at least one or two impromptu on-going soccer tournaments throughout the day.

Although Iraqi leaders had expected nearly 60 percent of registered voters to turn out, actual numbers were closer to 51 percent. The smaller numbers may have been due, in part, to extreme security measures, which forbid any vehicle traffic during the elections, and registration problems at polling sites.

Voters were required to cast their ballot at specific polling stations in their neighborhoods and a number of people had trouble finding their names on the official lists and were unable to vote. Meanwhile, internally displaced Iraqis were required to vote in their old neighborhoods and many could not return due to transportation issues or for other reasons.

Although Ali Jasim has lived in the Karada neighborhood of Baghdad for the last four years after fleeing Sadr City, he was not allowed to vote here. It wasn’t until election day that he learned he would have to travel nearly eight miles on foot to back to his original neighborhood if he wanted to vote. “Until last night we didn’t know about this,” he said. “I am waiting for my God to help me.”

Despite these issues, many of those who did make it to the polls say they are hoping that these elections will help bring an end to the country’s sectarian fault lines. In the last major election in 2005, Sunni Arabs boycotted and as a result Shiite and Kurds took on a dominate role, even in areas with predominately Sunni populations, something which is believed to have sparked much of the ethnic violence here.

On Saturday, however, in both Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad voters expressed a desire to elect candidates who placed a greater focus on secular issues, as opposed to ethnic or religious ones.

“I encourage every sect to vote. There is no difference between us and too many families lost people because of the sectarian discord. Voting is the right way to stop the fighting between different sects,” said Uday Samir, a Sunni voter in Baghdad’s Adhamiya neighborhood.

While results won’t start to come in until later this week, early indications show that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s allies are likely to come out ahead in these elections. Though Maliki was not up for reelection, he must run again later this year. The provincial elections may provide Maliki with a strong base of support as he makes a bid for another term.

Success, however, will depend on politicians' ability to deliver the central services, like electricity and clean water, long missing from Iraq.

“Before the government was busy looking for terrorists and militias. Now that security has gotten better it must focus on providing services for the people,” said Jamal al-Wan, before casting his ballot in Sadr City.

Indeed, al-Wan’s neighborhood of Sadr City is one of the most neglected areas in Baghdad. During Saddam Hussein’s rule the Shiite area received only limited government and during the current conflict it’s seen some of the heaviest fighting.

Residents were all too reminded of the need for capable politicians as they walked to the polling stations over partially paved streets and Gordian-knot sized tangles of wire that connect residents’ houses to generators due to unreliable city power.

“I came here to make Baghdad better,” said Dia Bakar, just after voting in one of Sadr City’s many rundown schoolhouses. “We want to be like the European capital cities now, so we voted for people who can make changes for us, like providing us with houses, new streets, clean water, and new hospitals.”

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