Iraqis flock to polls
Turnout large despite violence; 44 dead, including 9 attackers; 171 hurt
BAGHDAD -- Iraqis voted yesterday in historic national elections in unexpectedly large numbers, despite insurgent attacks on voters and polling stations that killed at least 35 people and injured at least 171. Nine attackers also died.
Voters danced in the streets in Kurdistan, ululated in the Shi'ite Muslim shrine city of Najaf, even ventured cautiously from houses in Fallujah, once the main bastion of the insurgency that tried to keep people away from the polls with bombs and threats.
Some polling stations in restive, mainly Sunni Muslim areas were deserted, even amid tight security that kept cars off the streets across the country. Election observers reported that some other polling places never opened because poll workers were scared off the job.
But Iraq's electoral commission said turnout could reach about 8 million voters, or about 60 percent of those eligible. Although turnout is a crucial question as Iraqis debate the legitimacy of the new government, commission members emphasized that accurate figures for more than 5,000 polling stations would not be compiled for at least a week.
It also could be that long until Iraqis learn who was elected to the new 275-member national assembly, which will choose a Parliament and draft a constitution that will tackle such fundamental issues as the role of Islam in politics, the sharing of oil revenues, and the extent of federal authority to be transferred to Iraq's diverse regions.
Interviews with voters in Baghdad and around the country suggested that two of the biggest vote-getters would be the United Iraqi Alliance, a prominent coalition of Shi'ite Islamist groups that has claimed the mantle of the long-oppressed Shi'ite majority, and the Iraqi List, headed by US-backed interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who has presented himself as a secular alternative willing to crack down on violence.
Yesterday, the country was a patchwork of moods, with election workers estimating a turnout of nearly 100 percent of eligible voters in some parts of Najaf, but only about 1,400 voters in Samarra, a city of 200,000 in the Sunni Triangle. The disparities fueled fears that a vote enthusiastically embraced by the Shi'ite majority but rejected by Sunnis could deepen divisions over the legitimacy of the government and the country's future direction.
But many Iraqis -- Sunni, Shi'ites, and Kurds alike -- declared that their votes were acts of defiance against the violence that has racked the country almost since the beginning of the US occupation in April 2003.
Wamidh Imad al-Zubaidi, an engineer, almost decided not to vote after death threats against would-be voters circulated in his mixed Sunni and Shi'ite neighborhood, Zayouna. Then, he said, he remembered his brother, who was executed for opposing Saddam Hussein's regime.
''I feel a power inside myself, and there is a voice telling me, this should not happen to my son or to any Iraqi. I have to prevent this dictatorship from returning to Iraq," he said, adding that he braved the polls with his pregnant wife. ''We put it in God's hands."
Some who oppose the US presence or even sympathize with the insurgency said they voted as a hedge against being left out of the political process.
''Do you want us to leave it for the Shi'ites and the Kurds alone?" said Ubeid Hamad al-Qubaisi, 33, a grocer and one of an estimated 3,000 people who voted in Fallujah, of a total of about 11,000 residents who have returned to the city of 300,000 after the United States invaded last November to drive out insurgents. ''We've got to participate in these elections, so that the two sides will be balanced."
There were also early reports of a higher-than-expected turnout of 59 percent in Mosul, the third-largest city, which in recent months has been one of the hottest flash points in the insurgency.
''Everyone hates the situation in Mosul, and they want to put an end to it, so they decided to vote," said an election worker, who asked not to be identified because three of his colleagues have been kidnapped.
Allawi, casting his ballot early yesterday morning in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, declared, ''This is a historic moment for Iraq, a day when Iraqis can hold their heads high because they are challenging the terrorists and starting to write their future with their own hands."
In a brief televised statement, President Bush congratulated Iraqis. ''Across Iraq today men and women have taken rightful control of their country's destiny, and they have chosen a future of freedom and peace," he said.
He thanked not only the US military, which has about 150,000 troops in Iraq, but also the European Union and the United Nations, in a nod to institutions that have often disagreed with his approach to Iraq but whose help he needs. Although holding elections in Iraq is a cornerstone of Bush's policy goal of bringing democracy to the Middle East, administration officials acknowledged this month that the election will not end or even necessarily slow the insurgency that has killed more than 1,400 US troops and thousands of Iraqis.
At least 27 people were killed in attacks in Baghdad, including suicide bombings carried out by a Syrian and a Chechen, interim Interior Minister Falab al-Naqib told Reuters.
Barriers around polling centers and a ban on traffic except for official vehicles led bombers to strap on suicide belts, as one man did in eastern Baghdad, blowing himself up in a line of voters and killing six.
Four people were killed in an explosion at a polling center in Sadr City, a sprawling and needy Shi'ite Muslim neighborhood, and a bomber on a bus south of Baghdad killed five people.
Up to 15 British military personnel died when a
In some places, particularly Sunni or mixed areas, the polling was marked by fear or confusion.
In Mansour, a well-to-do neighborhood in Baghdad, Salwa Mahmoud Othman al-Bayati, a university secretary, and her sister said they were walking to the polls when two men in Iraqi police uniforms stopped them, took their identification cards, told them to go home, and warned that if they tried again to vote, ''we will cut your heads off."
''We went straight home," said Bayati, 49. ''I was terrified."
In the Hay al-Jihad neighborhood, people leaving polling places tried to hide their fingers in their pockets or sleeves to conceal the indelible ink used to mark voters. In Adhamiya, a Sunni bastion of former army officers, at least four polling stations failed to open, residents said. But late in the day, many people jumped at the opportunity when election workers said they could vote in another neighborhood.
Shi'ites -- concentrated in sections of Baghdad, in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, and in the spiritual capital of Najaf -- celebrated in the streets after the voting, which Shi'ite politicians had called a religious duty.
Kurds, who have enjoyed de facto autonomy in three northern provinces since the United States extended military protection in 1991, also flooded polling centers, viewing high turnout as a measure of their clout. ''We vote so that everybody will hear our voice," said Hamad Amin, 68, a Kurdish militia fighter who voted in the northern city of Erbil. ''Kurds have been tortured, bombed with gas, persecuted by Saddam's regime. It is time to get our rights back."
Many northern polling stations also held an unofficial referendum on independence, asking voters in favor to check a box next to a Kurdish flag, and those against to check an Iraqi flag.
In Ramadi, one of the most violent cities in Iraq, mosque loudspeakers issued threats to ''wash the streets with the blood of anyone who even thinks about voting." In nearby Fallujah, where US troops fought a bloody battle to drive out insurgents in order to hold elections there, voting was slow to get started. Under extra security measures, polling places were not announced until US troops went from door to door telling voters where to go. Many residents did not leave their houses until late in the day.
At that point, a number of people seemed to defy a call for a boycott from the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, which had urged Sunnis to stay away from the polls because of the US occupation and the violence in Sunni areas.
''I voted just to go against the Association of Muslim Scholars," said Sakar Jassim, 49, a teacher.
He blamed the group for blowing up Fallujah ''into a balloon that made the insurgents think they are strong and that the American forces will not be able to break them."
''But when the Americans burst the balloon, it blew up not on the insurgents but on the residents of the city," Jassim said.
In Baghdad's Jadriya neighborhood, Hussein Ali Mehdi, a government television worker, summed up many Iraqis' hopes for the transition from an appointed government to an elected one.
''We want an elected government," he said, ''so that we can feel like the government is taking care of us."
Globe correspondents Sa'ad al-Izzi, Mohammad Qasim Sharazi, and Delphine Minoui contributed to this report. A Globe correspondent also reported from Fallujah and Ramadi.