iraqi vote 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Millions of Iraqis across ethnic and religious divides braved possible violence to cast their ballots in parliamentary elections likely to determine the course of this violence-plagued country.
Violence was relatively light in a nation in which 30,000 have died since the US invasion nearly three years ago. Voters turned out in such numbers that several precincts held polling stations open for an extra hour.
The success of what are arguably the freest elections for a full-term parliament in the Arab world could determine future US policy and impact upon its push to bring democracy to the Middle East.
The Iraqi government hailed the voter turnout, but said it could be two weeks before final results were released and urged parties not to report exit polls prematurely. Several bombings rocked Baghdad, but failed to deter voters.
Muhammad Taha, 42, a Sunni Arab from the mixed city of Kirkuk, welcomed whoever won the election. "Even if we [Sunni Arabs] don't profit personally, whoever is elected is elected by us, by our own choice." Taha, an army officer, is married to a Kurdish woman, and said that Iraq must be able to bridge the ethnic and religious divide to move forward. "That is the way to stop the terrorists," he said.
Kirkuk is a hodgepodge of Turkmen, Sunnis and Shi'ites, with a majority of Kurds. Though sporadic gunfire sounded here throughout the day, there were only a few reports of scuffles, according to Kurdish officials.
For many, the election was redemption for more than three decades under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
Contrary to the reserved reactions of many Iraqi politicians, White House Spokesman Scott McClellan hailed Thursday's vote as "a historic day for the Iraqi people, the Middle East and the world, a historic day for the advance of freedom. We are encouraged by what appears to be a large turnout," according to the White House Web site.
Last week, President George W. Bush said the US could begin to withdraw troops once coalition forces helped to bring stability to Iraq. The Iraqi government encouraged Sunni Arabs to vote in the hopes that a strong turnout and more power granted to that Iraqi minority would help curb the insurgency.
The Sunnis, a minority which once ruled Iraq but boycotted the last elections in January, turned out in droves for the elections. In the largely Sunni province of Salahiddin, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, some 83% turned out to vote, according to the Iraqi Government Press Office.
Security was tight in most of Iraq. Only those with special election badges on their cars were permitted to use the roads. In Kirkuk, the Iraqi army, police and militiamen rumbled down boulevards manning machine guns on the back of pickups. In many provinces, the country's troops provided the bulk of security. There was little visible American presence, and many Iraqis interviewed said it was better that way.
Checkpoints set up at most key intersections blocked generally chaotic traffic. Kurdish neighborhoods throbbed with traditional music and occasional gunfire. Drummers banged away as men danced around them.
Strongly Sunni Arab parts of Kirkuk were virtual ghost towns. The bright banners that festooned Kurdish neighborhoods were absent from Sunni-dominated central Kirkuk. There, voters somberly went about the business of heading to the polls. The black-clad Sunni Arab women were in stark contrast to their Kurdish neighbors, who marched to the polls in vibrantly colored garb; many even wore their gold on display.
Wastal Rasul, the commander of a local branch of Peshmerga militia in Kirkuk, said the elections had gone well. Bands of merry Kurdish families paraded through his office. He told them that the elections were the most important in Iraqi history, and they nodded in assent. All of them, he said, "Voted for 730, for the Kurds," and the families all brandished their ink-stained fingers.
Rasul had lost the lower part of his leg in an assassination attempt by the al-Qaida affiliate Ansar al-Islam in 2001, and thanked the Americans for saving him. "They came in, gave us freedom, and destroyed our enemies," he said. He now never goes anywhere without the Uzi submachine gun US forces gave him. He said he hoped the 160,000 coalition forces now in Iraq would stay until "the country stabilized."
He said he had heard of only a handful of scuffles at polling stations in the city, blaming the local Sunni Arabs for the problems.
"This vote is better than the previous two elections in Iraq. Now people have experience," Rasul noted.
Though he had voted twice before, Amin Fatah, 68, said this vote "was happier than the birth of my children."
"Hopefully," said the grizzled grandfather of nine, "their future will be happier than my past."