Page 3 of 3   <      

In a Sunni Quarter, A Day of Emotion

His words were desperate, spoken as though Adhamiyah were Iraq's last hope.

"The most honorable region in Iraq, all of it, is here in Adhamiyah," he said.

"And now it's become a city of ghosts," added a friend, Rafid Salman.

In other conversations, those sentiments usually unleashed a litany of complaints, common to Sunnis and Shiites alike: frustration with the lack of improvement in their lives, trash piled in the streets. One man complained he couldn't ensure his daughter's safety as she walked to school. For much of the morning, the polling stations were without electricity; the evening before, most Baghdad residents broke the dawn-to-dusk fast of the holy month of Ramadan in darkened houses.

"Government officials make millions, and people don't have ice to put in their drinks," said Bashir Eissa, a 50-year-old resident. "What's your opinion that I can sit here and see a person killed over there?" he said, pointing to a nearby bench.

Standing next to him was Ali Hussein, a swaggering 37-year-old. Like millions of others Saturday, he bore on his finger the indigo ink that Iraqis wore proudly as a symbol of their determination to vote in the election in January. For Hussein, the symbol had an altogether different message this time. He chose to stain his middle finger.

"This is to the constitution and to the people who drafted the constitution," he said, raising it in the air.

Disenfranchisement has become a powerful theme among Sunnis like Eissa and Hussein, even more pronounced given the power the Sunnis once yielded. The community, willingly or not, has been subjected to a string of supposed antidotes: an insurgency fought in Baghdad and the Sunni triangle north and west of the capital; a refusal to join the U.S.-backed political process in an attempt to foil it; and a boycott of the election in January in hopes Sunni abstention would deprive it of legitimacy.

The vote Saturday, in a way, was the latest attempt at empowerment.

Directors at five polling stations in Adhamiyah, housed in two schools, put turnout by midday at more than half of eligible voters, possibly far more. In interviews, nearly everyone voting Saturday said they had stayed away from the January election.

Perhaps the most important question Saturday was whether their turnout would bring them into a political process they have so far eschewed or, if the constitution is approved, deepen their alienation. Without exception, voters said they planned to cast ballots in elections in December to choose a new parliament.

"God willing, we have to secure the future of Iraq," said Wissam Faiz, a 22-year-old who voted no. "With a new election, we can elect a better government."

Could a better government exist with the occupation? he was asked.

Frowning, he shrugged. "Without an occupation," he said, somewhat ambiguously, "we would have never witnessed any of this."

<          3

© 2005 The Washington Post Company