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.
But the story was the Sunni vote. In Ramadi, a provincial capital reduced to cratered buildings and empty streets by two years of warfare between insurgents and U.S. forces, fighting on the day of Iraq's Oct. 15 constitutional referendum kept turnout below 2 percent. More than 80 percent turned out Thursday in Ramadi and other insurgent strongholds in far western Iraq's Upper Euphrates valley, estimated a Ramadi election official, Yaseen Nouri. The exceptions were towns along the Syrian border, he said, where U.S. military operations against insurgents had made refugees of local people.
Long lines formed outside voting centers in Ramadi on Thursday despite an insurgent bombing at 7 a.m., when polls opened nationwide. Masked guerrillas of the anti-U.S. Iraqi Islamic Army movement, wearing tracksuits and toting AK-47 assault rifles, went out among houses to encourage people to vote. Witnesses said the guerrillas told them: Do not be afraid, we will protect you.
In Tall Afar, where U.S. and Iraqi forces waged a major offensive against insurgents in September, men and women streamed toward heavily guarded polling sites, with wide lines stretching for blocks. The turnout of more than 76,000 was about four times the number who cast ballots in the October referendum, according to government tallies.
All 15 polling sites in and around Tall Afar remained open throughout the day, despite a series of seven mortar attacks targeting crowds of voters in largely Shiite neighborhoods.
One strike by 60mm mortar shells killed three children and wounded two north of a polling place in Tall Afar's Moalameen neighborhood. Voting continued at the site even as Iraqi police rushed the children to a nearby U.S. military base. Shops shut down and bystanders left the streets, but a thinned stream of voters continued to flow.
"They're trying to discourage the vote. It's not working, but it's a tragedy that the little kids got killed," said Lt. Col. Christopher Hickey, commander of 2nd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, based in Tall Afar. More than 1,000 U.S. troops -- including the cavalry squadron and several hundred paratroops -- backed up Iraqi police and soldiers securing the election sites. Tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles patrolled main roads, with civilian vehicle traffic banned in an effort to prevent car bombs.
"All my neighborhood is voting," said Mohammed Noon Abrahim, 53, a Sunni. "God willing, after the elections things will be good."
In Fallujah, children played soccer in the streets and crowds gathered in and around polling places, enjoying the three-day traffic ban and the release brought by voting.
"Right now, the city is experiencing a democratic celebration," said Dari Abdul Hadi Zubaie, the mayor, who compared it to a wedding.
Many of those who cast ballots in the city of about 250,000, west of Baghdad in Anbar province, said they considered voting an act of resistance against the continued presence of U.S. Marines in Fallujah. On Thursday, polling sites were protected by Iraqi police, while Marines withdrew to a perimeter no closer than 100 yards away.
"The main thing I want is the Americans to get out. Maybe they can stay on their bases for a little while and out of the city, but before long they should leave Iraq," said Hakim Rashid, 30, who with his younger brother Ahmad voted for the Tawafaq slate, a Sunni religious coalition led by the Iraqi Islamic Party.
Within hours of the polls opening, however, several sites ran out of ballots and ballot boxes. As election workers scrambled to arrange for more to be delivered, many potential voters were turned away. At midday in Ramadi, mosque loudspeakers called people back to the polls after election workers replenished stacks of ballots.
In Fallujah and Baghdad, several people complained that their names were not on the list of registered voters and asserted that the various problems were part of a deliberate attempt by the Shiite-led government to suppress the Sunni vote.
"I am 100 percent sure this was intentional, because despite what they say, they don't want us to participate," said Omar Hussein, 65, a retired teacher who, along with 10 family members, walked to five different polling stations and could not find their names. They had voted without incident in the country's Oct. 15 constitutional referendum, he said.
In Basra, a Shiite city at Iraq's southern tip, conversations with voters and an exit poll conducted by local newspapers suggested the Shiite alliance would score a decisive victory in the south.
The newspaper poll, based on interviews with voters leaving the polls in four southern provinces, showed the Shiite alliance leading Allawi's party 2 to 1. That would be a stronger showing for Allawi than he had expected in the south and would potentially strengthen his hand in trying to form a coalition with enough seats in the parliament to form a government.
Basra officials acknowledged the election there was being held under the dominating influence of Shiite factional militias, which permeate the ranks of the local police. An independent, secular candidate, Majid Sari, said he worried that the police would intimidate observers posted at polls to ensure the balloting was fair.
"We are quite afraid of election fraud and forgery," he said after a morning tour of polling stations. "The places are full of Iraqi police, and the observers are afraid of them."
Many voters in Basra said they were voting for the Shiite alliance on the advice of leading clerics, called the marjaiya . "I vote for them because the marjaiya said so," said Yusef Ibrahim Abbas, 51, an oil engineer dressed in gray traditional robes, as he cast his vote Thursday morning.
Secular candidates were hoping that such public declarations were for show and that voters would express dissatisfaction with religious candidates when they marked their secret ballots.
Even among voters who disagreed on their choices, there was near unanimity on the desired goal: security. After more than two years of bombings and assassinations throughout Iraq, the word was on the tip of nearly every voter's tongue.
"I'm afraid to walk on the streets. It's not stable here," said Sana Abdul-Wahab, 29, a Sunni housewife. "In these historic days, what we need is stability and security."
Many of the voters shared Abdul-Wahab's sense of history and celebration.
Zaydan Khalif, 33, wrapped himself in the Iraqi flag as he headed to the polls. "It's the national feeling," he explained.
Finer reported from Fallujah. Correspondent Doug Struck in Basra, staff writer Ann Scott Tyson in Tall Afar and special correspondents Naseer Nouri and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad, Omar Fekeiki in Fallujah, Saad Sarhan in Najaf, Dlovan Brwari in Mosul and Salih Saif Aldin in Tikrit contributed to this report.