- The Washington Times - Friday, December 16, 2005

BAGHDAD — Festive crowds mobbed polling stations yesterday for Iraq’s third election this year, the most ambitious attempt yet to shift a Shi’ite-Sunni struggle from the streets to parliament.

Unintimidated by a series of morning explosions that shook the capital and a smattering of attacks elsewhere, record numbers of voters walked in the warm sun to cast ballots at heavily protected polling places.

Official results will not be known for as long as two weeks, but fragmentary polling by Reuters news agency and a local television station showed substantial support for moderate Shi’ite leader Iyad Allawi from both Sunnis and Shi’ites.

Regardless of the outcome, voters in Baghdad were ready to celebrate the vote itself.

“Today is like a wedding day,” said Hussein Hussein, wearing a conservative brown suit as he watched voters at polling stations in Baghdad’s Harithiya district.

“The violence will be less because the Sunnis have come to vote, too. The people are much more united now. A lot of people came to vote today, even very old people came today,” Mr. Hussein said.

In Washington, President Bush and congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle hailed the vote as a milestone for Iraq’s fledgling democracy a little less than three years after a U.S.-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

“There’s a lot of joy, as far as I’m concerned,” Mr. Bush said in the Oval Office while flanked by six smiling young Iraqis displaying purple-stained fingers.

In Baghdad, women with small children and men in their best suits lined up around the heavily guarded polling stations, expressing hope that the day would be a turning point.

“There will be a 100 percent change for the better, because Iraqis are united as one people,” said Labib, an elderly man in a gray suit. Like many Iraqis, he was unwilling to give a reporter more than his first name.

What began as a trickle of voters turned into a flood as the day progressed. Officials estimated that up to 11 million of the country’s 15 million registered voters had cast ballots by the time polls closed.

That would be significantly higher turnout than the Oct. 15 referendum on a new constitution. Yesterday’s vote was to elect legislators to four-year terms in a new legislature that will choose a president, prime minister and Cabinet.

Voting was extended for an hour to accommodate long lines of voters in many places, and some polling stations ran out of ballots, forcing authorities to scramble for extra supplies or to turn away voters altogether.

Iraqi expatriates cast ballots in the United States and other nations this week.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told CBS News that the hard part for the Iraqis would come after the vote — forming a government and possibly amending the constitution.

“The bottom line is they still need us here,” said Mr. Biden, who was visiting Baghdad. “But the key to this is not a military solution. It’s a political solution.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, also in Baghdad for the voting, agreed.

“Let’s don’t take this election to mean the problems in Iraq are solved — really in many ways they’re just beginning,” Mr. Graham, South Carolina Republican, told NBC.

The day passed without spectacular suicide attacks but not without violence. At least four large explosions shook the capital in the morning, roadside bombs targeted election workers and gunfire rang out north of Baghdad.

Explosions also echoed in the troubled city of Ramadi, west of the capital, despite promises by some Sunni insurgent groups that voters would not be attacked.

In northern Iraq, a civilian was killed when a mortar shell hit near a polling station in Tal Afar, and a grenade killed a school guard near a voting site in Mosul.

Tension in Baghdad increased as rumors spread through the city that the water supply had been contaminated. The Ministry of Health denied the reports, but residents quickly switched to bottled water.

Sunnis, who make up roughly 20 percent of the country’s population, were urged by their leaders to come out and vote after a boycott of January elections left them badly underrepresented.

In Saddam’s home province, Tikrit, more than 80 percent of voters turned out, a local official said.

In Baghdad, the streets were free of the usual traffic jams as thoroughfares were kept free for Iraqi army and police cars. Youths played soccer on the larger avenues as old men watched from the sidewalks.

Women, many of whom have been fearful to leave their homes, took advantage of the heavy security to enjoy the sunshine.

They appeared in everything from abayas to blue jeans, reflecting the city’s religious diversity.

Zuher Habib Yusef, neatly turned out in a blue suit and tie, said he hoped the high Sunni turnout would reduce support for al Qaeda leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, whose terror campaign has killed Iraqis by the hundreds.

“I think the violence will decrease by 50 percent,” he said.

But Mr. Yusef said the new government would have to move quickly to supply jobs and services to its people, and much would depend on the winning parties’ willingness to cooperate.

“If they don’t talk, the government will fail,” he said, apparently referring to scheduled negotiations for an inclusive government.

Despite widespread hopes for a united government, sectarianism and religious fervor still run high in the country. In one area of the wealthier Mansour district, a blue-uniformed policeman used his gun to repeatedly smash a billboard featuring Mr. Allawi, a secular Shi’ite who served as prime minister prior to January’s election.

In another instance, about 20 members of the Iraqi national army, some with ski masks, sped down a main Baghdad road shouting, “Victory for Imam Ali,” while pumping their guns in the air. Imam Ali is a seventh-century martyr, whose death led to the Shi’ite-Sunni split in Islam.

One Sunni engineer complained that most poll workers were Shi’ite, and said that not enough ballots were delivered to the Sunni strongholds of Ramadi and Fallujah in the western province of Anbar.

“There are logistical and security obstacles that can mute the Sunni voice,” one U.S. observer acknowledged. He said the problem was more severe in central Iraq, “where the number of polling stations has been comparatively reduced due to security considerations.”

Four main political lists, or parties, are expected to dominate the new 275-seat national assembly — the main Shi’ite bloc, which includes Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, top Shi’ite politician Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and hard-line cleric Muqtada al-Sadr; a moderate nonsectarian list headed by Mr. Allawi; a Sunni alliance led by Adnan al-Dulaimi; and the Kurds.

None is expected to win an outright majority of seats, and Iraqis and U.S. officials expect weeks, if not months, of negotiations before a new government is formed.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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