RAMADI, Iraq — Iraqi soldiers cast some of the first ballots in national elections yesterday, cheering and waving pictures of firebrand Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as they trooped to the polls.
“It is so important to find our way for the future and try to finish the terrorism here,” said Saad, a 49-year-old soldier from Baghdad who is based at Camp Ali, just outside Ramadi.
“This will be an elected government, our own government, with our own laws, and the insurgents will get punished,” he said, standing in line to cast his ballot with about 3,000 troops.
The soldiers, most of them Shi’ites from Baghdad or southern Iraq, will be on guard duty when most Iraqis vote Thursday and will be charged with securing the polls for the overwhelmingly Sunni population in this insurgent stronghold in western Anbar province.
Defense Minister Sadun al-Dulaimi, whose family comes from the province, chastised tribal leaders here yesterday for complacency toward the terrorists who have killed thousands of Iraqi civilians.
Mr. al-Dulaimi — accompanied by the U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. George Casey — told a meeting of the Anbar Security Council that he had been “hoping to hear openly a condemnation that to shed the blood of innocent civilians anywhere in Iraq is a sin.”
“If anyone tries to tell me that we did not welcome the foreigners into our towns, cities and villages, I will say this is not true,” he told the gathering of sheiks, former military officers and professionals.
“We cannot be a safe haven for those who want to come from outside our borders and terrorize our country,” he said.
When the sheiks began to react to the unexpected public dressing-down, Gen. Casey asked a handful of reporters to leave the room.
In a dramatic turnaround from the January elections, Sunnis in the city, including sheiks representing large swaths of Anbar, said their followers would vote on Thursday.
“They will vote, and vote strongly,” said the secretary of the council, a group set up a month ago to discuss with U.S. forces how best to quell violence in the province.
Anbar’s previous governor was kidnapped; the vice governor was assassinated a month ago; and the police chief was fired for corruption and on suspicion of funding the insurgency. A new police chief has not been found.
But the leaders said long-term peace depended on U.S. troops withdrawing from the province’s cities and towns, and the creation of a military division drawn from the local population.
The council met behind sandbagged windows in the provincial governor’s office at the end of a road lined with bullet-pocked houses. Soldiers call the drive into Ramadi “Thunder Run.”
U.S. and Iraqi forces have worked to force the insurgents onto the defensive in recent weeks, and some insurgency leaders have pledged to withhold attacks on Thursday so that their Sunni followers can vote.
But Lt. Col. Jabar al-Meyahi, whose troops will be defending polling places on Thursday, acknowledged that parts of Anbar remain under the control of Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi.
“They came with masks and told the people not to vote,” said Col. al-Meyahi, his index finger stained purple from casting his vote.
As he spoke, a group of chanting Iraqi soldiers arrived, carrying the Iraqi flag, their battalion flag, and suddenly the black flag of Sheik al-Sadr, whose power base lies in southern Iraq and in Baghdad’s Shi’ite slums.
“Five, five, five, the elegant leaders,” they sang, referring to a Shi’ite list of candidates that includes Sheik al-Sadr and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
One had a homemade poster of Sheik al-Sadr and his father stuck on the top of his gun; others wore chains around their necks with pictures of Iraq’s supreme Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani.