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Iraq Elections

Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2005; 12:00 PM

Iraqis voted in their first democratic election in nearly half a century Sunday with many observers saying the day appeared to have yielded higher turnout than expected and less violence than feared.

Washington Post staff writer Jackie Spinner, monitoring the elections from Irbil, the governmental capital of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, was online Sunday, Jan. 30, at Noon ET to discuss the scene in Irbil, where elation at electing a new Kurdish parliament has Kurds partying in the streets.


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washingtonpost.com: Jackie will be with us momentarily.

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Fairfax, Va.: I understand voters' fingers are marked with ink to make sure people don't vote twice. Given the blanket death threats to anyone who dares vote, how prudent is that? It's like tattooing a bullseye on voters' foreheads. Do you have any doubt that the insurgents will stage surprise finger checks and shoot people who fail them?

Jackie Spinner: Hi Fairfax. One of the most memorable visuals many of us here on the ground will take from these elections is the sight of Iraqis triumphantly holdind up that ink-stained finger. It was a badge of honor for people who voted. I met an old woman in a very poor farming village today who was covered head to toe in the traditional black dress. I could only see a part of her face when I met her. But when I asked her about how she felt about the elections, she stick that purple finger out at me and kept showing it off.

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New York, N.Y.: Is there a significant minority of non-Kurds in Irbil? If so, how enthusiastically are they approaching the election?

Also, who is the leading candidate/coalition among the Kurds?

Thanks.

Jackie Spinner: Irbil is a Kurdish city, so much so that it hardly feels like you are in Iraq. One thing that struck me here today was the absence of any talk from voters about the importance of the elections for Iraq. People spoke only of being Kurdish and what the elections mean for the Kurds. The two major Kurdish parties united under one slate so that they would be assured of picking up more votes in the transitional assembly.

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Toronto, Canada: What I was looking for this morning was a break down of how many Sunnis voted in the election.

What information do we have to look forward to about that, and who will present it? ie. how reliable will the statistics be?

Were western reporters present in the central areas of Iraq? And what outside election monitors were in place?

Thank you.

Jackie Spinner: Toronto, that is a great question. In our pre-election coverage planning, one of the things we debated was where to put people for the election. The problem with the Sunni-dominated areas like Anbar province is that is not say for us to be there without the military. So the Post, like many Western news organization, is relying on its great, brave Iraqi stringers to tell us what is going on in those places. These are journalists from those areas who can be our eyes and ears when we cannot physically be there. Their dispatches are highly reliable.

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Chattanooga, Tenn.: Hey Jackie! I hope you're staying safe over there! What's the access like for journalists covering the election over there? And are voters pretty receptive to talking with you?

Jackie Spinner: The election commission had a tough job of balancing the security issues with the need to allow the press complete access to the election process. All of us covering the elections had to have special credentials to get into the polling areas. We were not allowed to bring phones or communication devices into the polling areas. But I can tell you that in Irbil and the Kurdish north, I felt absolutely welcomed at every polling center I visted. We had extraordinary access, more so than you would even in the United States. The voters were eager to talk.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Hi Jackie,

Is your reporting censored by anyone? Or do you have full reign to report on things as you see them? Also can you travel freely or are you mainly with police, military, in secure hotels, etc.?

Thanks

Jackie Spinner: Hi San Fran. I had full access, as did our team in Baghdad. We went to polling centers, talked to voters, took photographs. Particularly in Irbil, which is much safer than the rest of Iraq, I had the freedom to roam from village to village. We had a sticker on the car that came from the Kurdish Ministry of Interior. I also had credentials from the central government. Journalists were not under the same travel restrictions as the larger population so we could go where we wanted to--with safety in mind, of course. I did not feel restricted in the least.

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Hyattsville, Md.: Hello, Ms. Spinner. I know you must have many images from today's historic election, but I was wondering if there was one over-riding image that you will see when you finally close your eyes upon this election and your time in Iraq, one moment that "says it all" about what it's like to be covering this story today.

Jackie Spinner: Hi Hyattsville. I have two images. One will be the 90-year-old woman who showed up at a poll in the mountains outside of Irbil. She was in a wheelchair and two men lifted up the chair so she could hand in her vote herself. As she felt, someone handed her the Kurdish flag and she waved it as she left until her strength gave out and it fell from her hand. The other will be the ink-stained fingers.

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USA: Coverage this morning of the elections is very positive in U.S. media. High turnout, much less violence than feared.

What's it feel like on the ground there?

Jackie Spinner: The turnout was much higher than we anticipated. I have been on the ground in Iraq (mostly in Baghdad) for nearly 9 months. I felt a sense of hope from the people today that I have not felt since I got here. I don't think anyone expects to wake up tomorrow to paradise. There will be more killings, more bombings and more violence. We can count on that. But it was amazing to watch the Iraqis go to the polls today, knowing that they were taking a great risk, particularly in places like central Iraq. Our coverage is simply reflecting that sense of optimism that we heard and saw from the Iraqi people themselves.

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Austin, Tex.: Do you get the impression that most Kurds are going to be satisfied with something less than independence over the long term?

Also, just out of curiosity: What's the linguistic situation in Iraqi Kurdistan? Are people bilingual in Kurdish and Arabic?

Jackie Spinner: The people want independence. Almost every Kurd I interviewed today talked about a separate state. For now, they will have to settle with something they've never had before either--fair representation in the central government.

Most Kurds speak both Arabic and Kurdish.

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Palm Beach, Fla.: Are you reporting from Baghad?

What arrangements have been made by The Post and other news organizations to get info about the turnout from areas of Iraq which are considered dangerous for Westerners?

Thank you.

Jackie Spinner: I am reporting from Irbil. I have colleagues in Baghdad, Najaf and Mosul. We also have Iraqi correspondents in Tikrit, Fallujah, Baqouba, Basra and others.

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As Suwayrah, Iraq: What is the process of campaigning?

Jackie Spinner: There was little overt campaigning. As my colleague, Anthony Shadid wrote in a story a few days ago, virtually all of the campaigning was done by television. Perhaps my friends at post.com can call up that story for you.

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Jackie Spinner: Of course I meant there has been no covert campaigning in my last response. Sorry, it's late here and it's been a long day!

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Jackie-

Any idea where the estimates of 70 percent-plus turnout are coming from?

Stay safe.

Jackie Spinner: The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, which is just estimating at this point.

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Austin, Tex.: Much reporting on the process of the election. But any word on who's winning?

Jackie Spinner: Hi Austin, that is because it could be 10 days before the ballots are counted.

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Rome, Italy: How would the Iraqui's vote be representative if, as it appears, most of the Sunni population is abstaining from voting?

Jackie Spinner: It would not be, and the question then would be how to pull the Sunnis into the process after the fact.

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Boston, Mass.: Jackie,
I am curious whether the children of Iraq have any understanding of what the elections mean?
Thank you.

Jackie Spinner: I saw quite a few children at the polls today. Their parents brought them to witness the event. Some of them will be far too young to remember the day, but some parents said they wanted their children to be there anyway so they could tell them about it when they were older.

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Washington, D.C.: Why are there different lines for women and men in the polling place? This doesn't seem like democracy. Can you imagine different lines in this country, blacks and whites or men and women?

Jackie Spinner: I cannot imagine separate lines in the U.S. but then this is the Middle East and there are cultural traditions here that have to be respected. One practical reason for the separate lines was security. Everyone who went into a polling center was physically searched. Women searched women, and men searched men.

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Wheaton, Md.: Is the general Iraqi public really hopeful for a peaceful "democracy?"

Jackie Spinner: The general Iraqi public right now wants peace. Period.

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Silver Spring, Md.: What type of protection is being offered to those who go vote, as they leave the polls?

Jackie Spinner: There are 30,000 polling centers in Iraq, and most of them are in neighborhoods just as they tend to be in the United States. So people, at least in the cities, don't have to venture too far to vote. There were wide protective barriers around the polling centers, which is one reason we speculate that the number of attacks was kept down. You didn't have the large-scale car bombings that can be so deadly because the vehicles could not reach the polling centers.

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Whitefish, Mont.: So what time is it now, evening? What's the spin from Al Jazeera, and...

How do YOU feel about this election? Did the Iraqis pull it off?

Jackie Spinner: It is about 8:30 pm here, and the reports I've seen from the Arab media today have covered the events as they happened. I can't really share my personal feelings about the elections except to say that I was honored to have a tiny part in recording the history of the moment.

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Detroit, Mich.: News of the election in the U.S. has thus far has been quite positive but really not relevant. What matters is how this election is perceived by the Iraqi people themselves. If they view the election as legitimate and historic it may strengthen the resistance against the Zarqawi movement especially considering Zarqawi's ill-timed speech this week offering the Iraqi people dictatorship as an alternative.

How do Iraqis feel about this election and is it overstating the case to say this week could be the tipping point to finally provide stability and growth for the country?

Jackie Spinner: Detroit, you are correct. The fact is that if Iraqis did not deem the elections relevant, they would not have gone to the polls, and many did not for just that reason. The Iraqi people I interviewed today in Iraq were elated, at the process, the ability to vote and make a choice, make a choice even of whether or not to vote. Under Saddam Hussein, they had to vote, and as one voter told me, "we always knew who was going to win." They not only had a choice to vote today--and some choice not to exercise it, but they had a choice of parties. That was a big deal for a lot of Iraqi people, as they told us, in their words.

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Manito, Ill.: Jackie,

Do you have a sense of how the Iraqis living in Iraq feel about Iraqis in other parts of the world being given the opportunity to vote in this election?

Thanks for a great job of reporting! Stay safe!

Jackie Spinner: Hi Manito, I think I mostly answered your question in my last post. The Iraqis I talked to at the polling centers today were happy. I also have talked to Iraqis in the past few days who planned to boycott the elections because they did not think the results would be fair or legitimate. It would not be fair to say that all of Iraq was elated today. But if the turnout figures hold, 70 to 80 percent, I'd say people are answering your question with their feet.

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Storrs, Conn.: Hi Jackie. How have people been responding to the tight curfews/travel restrictions imposed on the population? I know you said that the Kurdish areas seem to be different than other places in Iraq. Have you had any feedback from your colleagues in Baghdad, for example?

Jackie Spinner: People want to be safe, and at this point, they're willing to give up a few new liberties to have it, it seems. That is my sense to talking to people here. A security guard at a polling center where I was today politely asked a man if he could search him. Search me three times if you will search the bomber, too, he responded.

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Washington, D.C.: Jackie, first let me thank you for your superb reporting at great personal risk. Your efforts are much appreciated. I am curious whether you get the sense that the Iraqi people are more excited at the prospect of democracy and the opportunity to vote in this election, or fearful of the danger that these elections bring? Do the Iraqis believe they will really be represented by the democratic process?

Jackie Spinner: Thank you for your kind words, DC. You might feel like I am skirting your question but I'd say it's a mixed bag. What most Iraqis are excited about is a secure country. Really, I cannot emphasize that enough. The aveage person wants to be safe first, then free. I think the harder thing to assess is whether the turnout was a mandate for democracy or a mandate for a secure Iraq. People are tired of the violence. That said, the people I talked to spoke much of the difference between today and elections under Saddam. Keep in mind, however, that I was in the Kurdish-controlled north, an area that is not representative of the rest of the country. People here hated Saddam and are very pro-American.

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San Antonio, Tex.: Good day: Why should we believe the Administration's estimate of very high turnout in a war-torn country with little or no electricity, curfews, etc.? Afterall, the exit polling out of our last presidential election was way off the mark and no one was shooting or otherwise trying to kill the voters.

Jackie Spinner: The estimates are coming from an independent commission, not from the U.S. government. That said, we have no way right now to confirm their accuracy.

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Jackie Spinner: Well folks, thanks for all of your questions. I am sorry I could not get to all of them. Make sure you check back tomorrow when my colleague, Anthony Shadid, will be hosting another discussion from Iraq. I am going to sign off a bit early because I still have a story to write. That's all from Irbil...

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