Joy explodes across Iraq

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“The political pressure is so large that all of us have to work together,” he said.

Men and women, people in wheelchairs and groups of young men walked in the early morning calm to their local polling stations in the capital, taking advantage of an unusual sense of safety created by a nationwide security lockdown that kept most vehicles off the streets.

“The street was crowded since 7 a.m. I woke up to the voices of the people on the street — I did not expect such a number,” said Thaer, a Sunni engineer who lives in eastern Baghdad, as he sat chatting with his neighborhood friends.

“Everybody feels that he is human today and can have a free voice. No one wanted to lose his chance,” he said, elated at the chance to cast his ballot. “I think today will show these terrorists lost their chance in this country.

“But I want to say one thing: I want to thank the U.S. soldiers for bringing this to Iraq,” said the ex-soldier who had been imprisoned by deposed ruler Saddam Hussein. “Without them, we would have to vote for Saddam always.”

About 300,000 Iraqi and American forces secured the streets and polling sites in a massive security operation that shut down all vehicle movement and created multiple cordons around voting centers.

Voters were searched as many as three times before being allowed into the election centers, and Iraqi national guardsmen even checked babies wrapped in blankets.

Even so, insurgents did break through with at least nine suicide bomb attacks, most of them in and around Baghdad, and rockets boomed throughout the day.

In the restive market town of Baqouba, north of Baghdad, there were 30 attacks in 24 hours, although a senior U.S. military official said 24 of them had “no impact.”

One of the deadliest came in Hillah, south of Baghdad, where a suicide bomber killed four persons on a bus filled with voters.

Even so, the violence fell far short of the bloodbath proportions that had been threatened by terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi.

“Today, the terrorists have lost the war,” declared Interior Ministry spokesman Thaer Nakib.

President Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer cast the first vote yesterday at a polling station inside the U.S.-fortified green zone. Dressed in a gold-trimmed white robe and traditional headgear, he and his wife, Nasreen Berwari, filled out their ballots and placed them in sealed plastic ballot boxes.

“I feel very exuberant,” said Mr. al-Yawer as he showed his ink-stained finger to reporters. “This is the first step toward joining the free world.”

The president, a Sunni, heads one of the secular electoral lists.

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