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In Mosul

Despite Troops' Pleas, Fear Keeps Many Away From the Polls

By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 31, 2005; Page A12

MOSUL, Iraq, Jan. 30 -- Around 10 a.m. Sunday, U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Phil Fassieux resolved to address the anemic voter turnout in southeast Mosul. He grabbed a clipboard inside his Stryker attack vehicle and quickly jotted down several entreaties that he wanted an Iraqi interpreter to make from the gunner's hatch:

"Secure your future!"

An Iraqi soldier patrols outside a polling location in Mosul marked by previous violence. Turnout was light in the city's southeast quadrant. (Jim Macmillan -- AP)

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"Come vote today!"

"Show your strength and courage!"

"Today is the beginning of a New Iraq!"

"Come vote for your leaders!"

Fassieux handed a bullhorn to the interpreter, who was known as "Mario" and wore a black ski mask to hide his identity from insurgents. The bullhorn was broken, however. And within the 36-square-mile sector patrolled by Fassieux and C Company, 3rd Battalion of the 21st Infantry Regiment, most voters stayed home all day.

The large turnout seen in many parts of Iraq -- and in many parts of Mosul -- did not materialize in the southeast quadrant of the city. A month-long campaign of violence by insurgents in the Sunni Muslim neighborhoods of al-Whada and Palestine proved effective. At 10 a.m., three hours after the polls opened, site No. 31, one of 40 in Mosul, had not had a voter except for 15 Iraqi soldiers who were protecting it. A cluster of men stood within 25 feet of the entrance, saying they were too frightened to go in.

The low numbers made for a dramatically different day for the soldiers of C Company. Instead of protecting voters on the periphery of the polling sites, as occurred in most areas, the company's platoons spent much of the day on raids in which they would burst into homes in search of insurgents, only to wind up urging the occupants to vote.

"Of course I want to vote; we all want to vote," said Mazahim Khalil, a professor at Mosul University's College of Veterinary Medicine, after his house was searched. "We waited 50 years for this. But everyone is afraid."

On a wall across the street from Khalil's house was a warning in Arabic: "Anyone who votes will be beheaded."

But soldiers said they were not disappointed by the low turnout in neighborhoods where they are frequently attacked. Rather, they said they were pleased that casualties were kept low -- the one reported death in Mosul came when an Iraqi soldier accidentally fired his weapon at a polling site -- after weeks of concern that the northern Iraqi city would be a magnet for insurgent violence during the election.

"I got to participate in history," said 2nd Lt. Jason Shick, of Grand Rapids, Mich., as night fell on a workday that was already 14 hours old and had no end in sight. "I'm pretty happy right now."

Two of C Company's platoons were hit by roadside bombs and one was the target of a rocket-propelled grenade, but no one from the unit was injured. Election workers at two of the four polling sites patrolled by C Company reported mortar fire; one of those two was attacked with automatic-weapons fire. At site No. 34, Iraqi security forces went to a nearby mosque to broadcast a message to the neighborhood over the loudspeakers: "Come and vote. We are the new Iraqi army. We will protect you. You have nothing to fear."

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