Polls Open in Iraq As Danger Remains

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 15, 2005

BAGHDAD, Dec. 15 -- Explosions in Baghdad and Ramadi marked the opening of polls Thursday but failed to discourage early voters, including many Sunni Arabs in western insurgent strongholds taking part in national elections for the first time.

At least one mortar round hit a neighborhood near Baghdad's Green Zone as some leaders of Iraq's transitional government cast ballots behind the fortresslike walls. More explosions hit near a polling center in the far western city of Ramadi, a heavily Sunni insurgent stronghold, prompting U.S. and Iraqi forces to cordon off the area. There was no immediate word of casualties in either blast.

Dozens lined up outside Ramadi polling places before they opened, freed to vote by promises from some insurgent groups to refrain from election day attacks and by Sunni clerics' lifting of a boycott call that had suppressed Sunni turnout in January's national elections.

"Even though there were many explosions last night, and even if there are more now or on my way to the polling center, I will come and vote," declared Mizhar Abud Salman, heading to a schoolhouse polling center in Saddam Hussein's home region of Tikrit.

On Wednesday, Iraqis had staged spontaneous celebrations, taking advantage of a three-day moratorium on vehicular traffic intended to guard against car bomb attacks during the election period.

But explosions could be heard in the capital throughout the night. Residents to the south said they could hear U.S. military helicopters and Iraqi troops battling insurgents.

"Let us make tomorrow a national celebration, a day of national unity and victory over terrorism and those who oppose our democratic march," President Jalal Talabani said Wednesday in a speech on nationwide television. Talabani, a member of the Kurdish minority based in the north, has served in the Shiite-dominated transitional government for 10 months.

About 15 million Iraqi voters were eligible to select 275 members of the new National Assembly. Complete returns were not expected until late December or early January.

The results may determine whether Iraq becomes a more heavily religious nation, and whether factions will split among sectarian and ethnic regions. The new government will face insurgent and political violence that have killed tens of thousands of Iraqis since the U.S. invasion in March 2003.

The current alliance of Shiite religious parties was widely predicted to win most seats, as it did in voting in January. But members of the Sunni Muslim minority hoped to win more representation, as Sunni religious leaders encouraged Sunnis to participate in the vote. Many members of the minority boycotted the January elections and an October ballot to approve a new constitution.

The Bush administration considers the elections a third political milestone in the pursuit of its goals following the U.S. invasion and ouster of President Saddam Hussein.

"In spite of the violence, Iraqis have met every milestone," President Bush said in Washington. "We are in Iraq today because our cause has always been more than the removal of a brutal dictator," Bush said, confronting growing domestic criticism of the war and of the presence of about 160,000 U.S. troops.

People celebrated on the streets of Ramadi, an insurgent stronghold, after insurgent groups said they would forgo attacks on civilians during the election period. Death threats and the fear of violence contributed to keeping Sunni Arabs away from the polls previously.

Dozens of men joined in street gatherings as women handed out fruit juice at their front gates. Residents said they were elated.

In the predominantly Shiite south, thousands staged protests after a commentator on al-Jazeera satellite TV network criticized the political influence of Iraqi Shiite clerics. Shiite protesters in Nasiriyah attacked and burned offices used by Ayad Allawi, the former interim prime minister, and attacked the Iraqi Communist Party.

Hundreds of uniformed Iraqi policemen joined protests in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, holding their firearms high and chanting slogans. "We came to vote for the Alliance, obeying our clerics' demand,'' said Ali Hussein, a 45-year-old taxi driver in Najaf casting his vote for the current governing Shiite coalition.

Special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Salih Saif Aldin in Tikrit contributed to this report.

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