- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2005

SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq — The last time 82-year old Malia Ahmed stepped out of her house in the mountains that divide Iraq from Iran, her hometown of Biyara was controlled by an Islamist militia with links to al Qaeda.

That was more than two years ago.

Today, too frail to walk, she was carried by her grandson, Ali Nasreddin, to the local polling station to vote.

“She suddenly made the decision yesterday,” Mr. Nasreddin said. “Every vote counted, she told me.”

Too tired to speak, Mrs. Ahmed limited herself to waving a finger soaked in indelible purple ink at a reporter. Then, offering his excuses, her grandson hauled her onto his back to start the 20-minute walk home.

Election day throughout the Kurdish north was full of similar small acts of determination.

In Kirkuk, according to one local election monitor, lines had begun to form outside polling stations by 5 a.m., three hours before voting started.

“We told them to go home for their own safety, but they turned up again an hour later,” the monitor said.

On the road between Sulaymaniyah and Halabja, at 6:30 a.m., a group of women was worried that they had missed their chance to vote.

“People registered in Arbat have already been picked up,” wailed one. “But there’s no sign of the bus supposed to take us to Seyyid Sadiq.”

At that moment, the bus appeared.

The group leaped in, without the customary polite farewells.

The mood of high seriousness was no less evident in the long, orderly lines outside polling stations throughout the region.

“We are here to give our children a better chance than we had,” explained Jemal Hama Amin in Halabja. “That is worth being patient for.”

Such was the enthusiasm that by lunchtime, most polling stations were winding down.

In Halabja, polling station head La’ik Abdulrahim said more than 1,500 out of 2,200 registered voters had cast their ballots by midday.

And in Biyara, an observer for one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s two largest political parties said the turnout had been more than 90 percent.

Such figures were expected in an ethnically united region that is determined to maintain the broad autonomy it has built up since the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Reduced violence in the north also helped.

Even in Kirkuk, which was singled out as a target last week by the al Qaeda-linked Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi, attacks were few: A rocket potshot at a Kurdish district killed one person, and two were injured in a shootout on one of the city’s bridges.

“To be frank, I am surprised how well things have gone,” said Lt. Col. Serhat Qadir, a senior security officer in the Kirkuk governorate.

Observers declared themselves just as satisfied with the election, despite the few minor irregularities.

One polling station had booths in full view of the staff, while in Biyara, election staff said one illiterate voter had been taken advantage of by a friend with a political agenda.

But the most common complaint seemed to be that the ballot boxes were barely large enough to hold all the votes.

“It’s been a remarkable success, as far as I can see,” said international observer Thomas von der Osten-Sacken.

“The real pity is that there are not more international observers here to see that. They could have ensured the new Iraqi government has the international legitimacy it desperately needs.”

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