Iraqi Vote Draws Big Turnout Of Sunnis

Women walk to vote in the northern Iraqi city of Tall Afar, where a series of mortar strikes near polling sites killed three children. Still, turnout was about four times higher than in the October referendum on a constitution.
Women walk to vote in the northern Iraqi city of Tall Afar, where a series of mortar strikes near polling sites killed three children. Still, turnout was about four times higher than in the October referendum on a constitution. (By Ann Scott Tyson -- The Washington Post)
By Ellen Knickmeyer and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 16, 2005

BAGHDAD, Dec. 15 -- More than two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Sunni Arabs belatedly turned out in force to build a new Iraq, walking to polls by the hundreds of thousands Thursday for national elections that generated robust participation across the country's sectarian and ethnic divides.

The Sunni outpouring was a long-hoped-for victory for the Bush administration, concluding a U.S.-planned timeline aimed at establishing a government that will hold together after U.S. troops withdraw. An overwhelming number of Sunnis made clear, however, that they were drawn to the polls by their dislike of the U.S. occupation and Iraq's U.S.-supported, Shiite-led transitional government.

Though complete results from Iraq's 18 provinces might not be available for about two weeks, partial tallies from across Iraq suggested that Thursday's turnout was stronger than in most elections in Western nations. Election officials in cities of the Kurdish-populated north reported 70 percent participation. Voting among Shiite Muslims, the most enthusiastic participants in Iraqi democracy since Hussein's overthrow brought their majority to power, appeared as strong as in this year's two previous nationwide votes.

"It looks like a first step toward politics breaking out in the region," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad declared, calling what appeared to be a comparatively free and fair vote a "qualitative" improvement for elections in the Islamic world.

The political achievement was not bloodless. Bombings and mortar attacks on polling centers killed eight Iraqi civilians and security personnel nationwide, including three children blown apart by mortar rounds near a voting station in the northern city of Tall Afar.

But at least one Iraqi insurgent group made good on a promised election day moratorium on attacks, even putting masked gunmen on the streets to guard voters against the foreign fighters of al Qaeda in Iraq and let the marginalized Sunni minority try to address grievances through ballots rather than bullets.

"This is our future. This is our destiny," Ammar Ahmed, a self-described supporter of the insurgency, said in Fallujah, a western Sunni city devastated by war. Tens of thousands there streamed to the polls. "If we don't want to live like this, we can't leave it to others," Ahmed said.

The elections will determine Iraq's first full-term National Assembly since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The government to be formed by the four-year parliament will face nothing less than the remaking of Iraq: whether it should be a secular or strongly Islamic state; whether it will be unified or split into three or more sectarian and ethnic sub-regions; and whether it will have war or peace. Political violence since the current government took office in April has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of U.S. troops.

Khalilzad and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), sporting souvenir purple-tipped fingers after dipping them in ink at a polling place in the Shiite city of Hilla, cautioned that the real test for any hopes of a U.S. troop withdrawal was whether the elections bring a representative government that can forge a constitution that unifies Iraq's factions. Biden said the United States would not find out the answer for another six months, at least, adding: "The question is whether we trade dictatorship for chaos."

The group expected to win the most votes was the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition made up largely of the Shiite religious parties that hold a slim majority in the outgoing transitional parliament and lead the current coalition government. The alliance hopes to win enough of the next assembly's 275 seats to have a strong mandate for taking Iraq on a more religious path.

In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, nominally nonsectarian police used the loudspeakers in their cars to rally support for the Shiite religious parties. Far to the north, in Tall Afar, a policeman at one polling place displayed pictures of top Shiite politicians and religious figures on his uniform until the police chief, Fawaz Mahmood Issa, ordered him to remove them. "Do you work for a sect or for Iraq?" Issa asked.

The coalition led by Ayad Allawi, the former interim prime minister and secular Shiite who hopes to block the religious alliance's continuation in power, appeared to be doing well in Baghdad and perhaps stronger than expected in the Shiite-populated south. In the largely Sunni Arab west, however, support for Allawi was siphoned off by a host of small Sunni groups.

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