At the Polls in Iraq

Friday, December 16, 2005

BAGHDAD, Dec. 15 -- Mustafa Abdul Aziz was a major general in Saddam Hussein's army when he fled Iraq with his wife and children to another Arab country in 1991.

When U.S. troops overthrew Hussein in 2003, it stirred in him a desire to return to his homeland. "I wanted to come back right away, but my children and wife said let's wait and see if things clear up before we go back," he said Thursday.

But Iraq became more turbulent, not less, and Abdul Aziz stayed away, waiting for his chance. As Iraq's national elections approached, he decided this was it: He would go home at last and take part in the vote.

But at a polling site in central Baghdad's Salihiyah district Thursday, electoral workers told the retired officer his name wasn't on the lists. He couldn't vote unless he got permission from the Electoral Commission, they said.

Bewildered, Abdul Aziz asked if he could at least dip his finger in the purple ink being used to mark people who had cast their ballots. That way, he would feel he had truly come home and taken part, he said.

" 'That's okay,' they told me. And as I dipped my finger in the inkpot, my eyes watered and tears started coming down," Abdul Aziz said at the polling center, surrounded by electoral workers moved by his story. "That's what we always wanted, a chance to live a free democratic life. I and my family had suffered just to have such a day, and now it has become a reality."

-- K.I. Ibrahim

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Near the traffic circle in the center of this northern city, a 90-year-old man struggling to walk held up his purple-stained finger and said he had demanded to go to the polls himself, rather than let a relative vote on his behalf.

The same determination was evident at a checkpoint south of the city, where a farmer in a red-checked headdress said he had walked more than 10 miles to the city to cast his ballot.

Women in sequined abaya cloaks, cradling infants and with children in tow, waited in special lines to be searched in curtained stalls before being allowed into polling places.

"We need peace and security, and we would like the Iraqi women's voice to be heard," said Jamila Siyan Yunnis, her chin tattooed and her hair dyed bright red in the style of local women.

-- Ann Scott Tyson

* * *

In Iraq, if people want to say an occasion was joyous, they say it was "like a wedding."

On Thursday, Nawazad Omar, 24, and his bride, Shireen Khibhir, 23, co-workers at Kirkuk's board of education, made election day their wedding day -- and turned a polling site in the violent northern city into their wedding hall.

Bride and groom in wedding regalia, family, friends and a Turkish band celebrated among the voters, said Safa Mahmoun Hadidi, deputy director of the Kirkuk electoral commission. Candy was thrown to all.

The couple chose election day "so this will be immortal, and the polling site so it will be extraordinary," Hadidi said, quoting the newlyweds. He said they declared: "People will talk about it, and they will see how we defied the terrorists."

-- a Washington Post special correspondent

© 2005 The Washington Post Company