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Saudis vote in historic elections

Shi'ites see ballot as an opportunity to assert rights

QATIF, Saudi Arabia -- Men in eastern and southern Saudi Arabia turned out in the thousands yesterday, some waiting in line from dawn, to vote in municipal elections they expect to provide their first say in decision-making in this absolute monarchy.

For minority Shi'ite Muslims, who have long complained of discrimination, the municipal elections have a deeper significance: the chance to show their numbers and assert their rights in a country where the official school of Sunni Islam considers them heretics.

''I came here to say: 'We are here and we have a role we can play,' " said Ali al-Hazim, a 33-year-old teacher, who walked with a limp to the polling station in spite of a childhood disability that causes him to use crutches. ''We don't exist just to eat, drink, and get a job. We should have a say in decision-making."

Saudis voted in the second of three phases in the local elections; the first round, in the capital, Riyadh, was held Feb. 10. Yesterday's vote extended the process to heavily Shi'ite areas and to the oil-rich but poorly developed Eastern Province.

For the Sunni Muslim majority as well, the municipal vote is a concrete, albeit tiny, step -- an opportunity to communicate their needs -- in a process of change no one had expected in the nation of some 26 million. Power sharing used to be a taboo subject.

Elections officials said voters surprised them by turning up early on what is the weekend for many Saudis, with some men lining up as early as 5:30 a.m.

''We had not expected our rush hour to be that early," said Nafea al-Nafea, an election official in the southern region of Aseer.

The night before the elections, Shi'ite men in Qatif spent hours going over their choices and arranged for wake-up calls so they would not oversleep, said Ibrahim al-Marhoun.

The desert kingdom came under pressure from the West, especially the United States, to undergo overhauls after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were carried out by 19 Arabs, 15 of whom were Saudi. That provided a catalyst for progressive Saudis who had been pressing for democratic changes for years. Those calling for overhauls believe that democratic change will counter the influence of Islamic militancy.

Only about 600 of some 1,200 council members will be elected nationwide; the rest will be appointed by the monarchy. Results of yesterday's vote were not expected before tomorrow.

Shi'ites are expected to sweep all five seats in the city of Qatif, where they form a majority, and half of the six seats in the mixed Al-Hasa area. In other urban districts in the province, however, Sunnis are expected to have clear victories.

The western, northern, and some central parts of the kingdom will vote in the third and final stage of the elections in April.

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