Iraq vote brings joy and uncertainty
BAGHDAD — The three women in black robes were walking to a polling station when a huge explosion shook the ground. They kept on going, calling out in unison: “We have no fear!”
Young and old, male and female, hobbling with canes, hanging on the backs of friends and even wheeled in an office chair, Iraqis chose to go to the polls Sunday, embracing democracy in defiance of an insurgent threat “to wash the streets of Baghdad with the blood of voters.”
Shiites and Kurds in the ethnically diverse country voted in big numbers and did not conceal their joy. Even turnout in mixed Shiite-Sunni areas of the capital seemed higher than expected, raising the possibility that Sunnis felt safer voting where they blended in.
But some polling stations in the minority Sunni heartland appeared largely deserted or didn’t open at all.
Given the odds against the election even going ahead, however, it was a day of some major successes.
The death toll of 44 killed in insurgent attacks was little changed from the blood-soaked daily norm, although the crash of a British military plane drove home that chaos in Iraq isn’t over yet.
Britain’s Press Association quoted unidentified military sources saying the death toll was “around 10” and it was “highly unlikely” to be more than 15. A Ministry of Defense spokesman said late yesterday that military officials were still trying to reach families of those involved.
The absence of any catastrophic single attack was at least partly a result of heavy security measures, including a ban that kept most cars from streets and body searches for most voters.
“We broke a barrier of fear,” said Mijm Towirish, an election official.
The mere fact the vote came off seemed to ricochet instantly around a world hoping for Arab democracy and fearing Islamic extremism.
“I am doing this because I love my country, and I love the sons of my nation,” said Shamal Hekeib, 53, who walked with his wife 20 minutes to a polling station near his Baghdad home.
“We are Arabs, we are not scared, and we are not cowards,” Hekeib said.
With helicopters flying low and gunfire close by, at least 200 voters stood calmly in line at midday outside one polling station in the heart of Baghdad. Inside, the tight security included at least four body searches, and a ban on lighters, cell phone batteries, cigarette packs and even pens.
The feeling was sometimes festive.
But for the country’s minority Sunni Arabs, who held a privileged position under Saddam Hussein, the day was not as welcome.
No more than 400 people voted in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, and in the heavily Sunni northern Baghdad neighborhood of Azamiyah, where Saddam made his last known public appearance in early April 2003, the four polling places never even opened.
Iraqi election officials said it might take 10 days to determine the winners and said they had no firm estimate of turnout among the 14 million eligible voters. The ticket endorsed by the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was the pre-voting favorite. Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s slate was also considered strong.
“The world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East,” said President Bush, who called the election a success. He promised the United States would continue training Iraqi soldiers, hoping they can soon secure a country America invaded nearly two years ago to topple Saddam.
Iraqis, the U.S. president said, had “firmly rejected the anti-democratic ideology” of terrorists.
The vote to elect a 275-National Assembly and 18 provincial legislatures was only the first step on Iraq’s road to self-rule and stability. Once results are in, it could take weeks of backroom deals before a prime minister and government are picked by the new assembly.
If that government proves successful by drawing in the minority Sunni Arabs who partly shunned the election, the country could stabilize, hastening the day when 150,000 U.S. troops can go home.
Yesterday, coalition soldiers raced through Baghdad’s streets in Humvees and tried to coax people to vote with loudspeakers in Ramadi, a Sunni city where anti-U.S. attacks are frequent. Iraqi police served as guards at most polling stations and U.S. troops had strict orders to stay away unless Iraqi security forces called for help.
At the Louisiana National Guard headquarters near Baghdad, nervous U.S. officers paced the halls, muttering, “So far, so good,” after the first 30 minutes of polling passed without attacks.
But the violence soon broke out.
While a driving ban seemed to discourage car bombs, the insurgents improvised, strapping on belts of explosives to launch their suicide missions.
At least 44 died in the suicide and mortar attacks on polling stations, including nine suicide bombers. The al-Qaida affiliate led by Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for at least four attacks. Most attacks were in Baghdad, but one of the deadliest came in Hillah to the south, when a bomber got onto a minibus carrying voters and detonated his explosives, killing himself and at least four others.
In another reminder of the dangers that persist in Iraq, a British C-130 Hercules transport plane crashed north of Baghdad. The wreckage was strewn over a large area. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said there were British deaths but did not give the number or the cause. Elsewhere, one U.S. serviceman died in fighting in the Sunni stronghold of Anbar province west of Baghdad.
Despite the string of attacks and mortars that boomed first in the morning and then after dark, a people steeled to violence by years of war, sanctions, the brutality of Saddam’s regime and U.S. military occupation were not deterred from the polls.
In the so-called “triangle of death” south of Baghdad, a whiskery, stooped Abed Hunni walked an hour with his wife to reach a polling site in Musayyib. “God is generous to give us this day,” he said.
And in heavily Shiite areas in the far south and mostly Kurdish regions in the north, some saw the vote as settling a score with the former dictator, Saddam.
“Now I feel that Saddam is really gone,” said Fatima Ibrahim, smiling as she headed home after voting in Irbil. She was 14 and a bride of just three months when her husband, father and brother were rounded up in a campaign of ethnic cleansing under Saddam. None have ever been found.
Many cities in the Sunni triangle north and west of the capital, particularly Fallujah, Ramadi and Beiji, were virtually empty of voters also.
A low Sunni turnout, if that turns out to be the case, could undermine the new government that will emerge from the vote and worsen tensions among the country’s ethnic, religious and cultural groups.
Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni elder statesman and candidate for the National Assembly, said he believes the best hope for harmony lies in giving Sunnis a significant role in drafting the country’s new constitution.
“The main thing, I think, is we should really have a constitution written by representatives of all segments of Iraq’s population,” Pachachi said. “I think it would improve the security situation.”
Across the largely authoritarian-ruled Arab world, where dislike and distrust of U.S. power and American intentions dominate the public debate, some dismissed the poll as a U.S.-orchestrated sham. Others hoped it might prove a catalyst for a region-wide democratic push.
Iraq’s elections are a “good omen for getting rid of dictatorship,” said Yemeni political science student Fathi al-Uraiqi.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — sure to win his own country’s much-less-democratic vote later this year — telephoned Allawi to congratulate him on the smooth election, saying he hoped it would “open the way for the restoration of calm and stability” in Iraq.
Here’s an early line on the winners and losers in Sunday’s Iraqi elections:
The Bush administration: The U.S. military, backed by Iraqi forces, managed to secure the country. For a day. But can democracy take root with 150,000 U.S. troops on the ground?
Ayad Allawi: Iraq’s secular, tough-talking interim prime minister got out the vote and survived countless assassination attempts. Now comes the hard part: fighting to keep his post in a landscape of powerful Shiite Muslim clerics.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani: Iraq’s highest-ranking Shiite cleric forced elections, made voting a religious duty and assembled the most powerful bloc of candidates. He won, even though his Iranian citizenship barred him from voting.
Kurds: Long oppressed by Sunni Muslim Arabs, they have enough muscle to veto a proposed constitution. But do they want to be left alone, or do they want independence — and Iraq’s northern oil fields?
Iraqis: They fought their latest battle with ballots, not bullets. At least 44 died in the vote, yet millions still came to the polls, once again surprising the world with their resilience.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: The reputed 13 suicide bombers of Osama bin Laden’s self-proclaimed lieutenant barely put a dent in the election day turnout. But the Jordanian militant may have more violence in store.
The Muslim Scholars Association: So much for a boycott. The hardline Sunni Muslim clerics watched in frustration as even Fallujah, once the heart of the homegrown resistance, succumbed to election fever.
Sunni Muslims: Although they appear to have voted in surprising numbers, at least in some places, the election is the end of their dominion over the Shiites and Kurds.
Saddam Hussein: Not even a write-in candidate, the fallen dictator sat out election day in a U.S.-run prison, where he’s awaiting trial on war crimes charges.