- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005

The first person to vote in Babylon in the Iraqi parliamentary election was 65-year-old Jasim Hameed, who is wheelchair-bound.

“I’m here at this early hour because I want to challenge the terrorists who want to kill the democratic process in Iraq and I want to encourage the healthy people to vote,” Mr. Hameed said. Because Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, threatened to kill those who cast ballots, Mr. Hamid was risking his life.

In a communique issued election eve, Mr. Zarqawi vowed to “ruin the democratic wedding of heresy and immorality.”

The threats were not idle. The police in Babil Province caught two brothers with 72 mines and improvised explosive devices who planned to plant them on the approaches to the polling stations, reported an Iraqi correspondent on the scene.

Despite the threats, turnout was so great the hours for voting had to be extended in many places to accommodate people waiting in line.

Early estimates are turnout approached two-thirds of registered voters. That’s higher than for the election of an interim parliament in January or for the referendum on the constitution in October, and much higher than the usual for U.S. presidential elections.

Turnout was higher chiefly because of a massive turnout among Sunni Muslims, many of whom boycotted the first two elections. “It’s the first time I have tasted the freedom to express my view,” Asmeal Nouri, 60, a Sunni Arab living in Kirkuk, told a reporter for Reuters.

And despite the threats, the mood of Iraqi voters was festive, said W. Thomas Smith, a former Marine and paratrooper embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq. “Adults are cheering, clapping hands, beating drums, singing, dancing and waving at passing U.S. and Iraqi military vehicles,” he said.

The high turnout among Sunnis was a repudiation of al Qaeda. And that voting proceeded with few incidents was the clearest indication yet of the terror group’s diminishing effectiveness.

At several polling places in al Anbar Province, security against al Qaeda was provided by Sunni militias once allied with the terror group, a split in the “insurgency” too wide for even our news media to ignore.

Web logger Bill Roggio, embedded with the U.S. Marines, reported turnout high in the “Wild West” town of Barwana, from which al Qaeda was evicted only two months ago.

“The poll site sits right beneath the now destroyed Barwana bridge, where Zarqawi terrorists routinely executed residents for not conforming to their perverse interpretation of Islam,” Mr. Roggio said. “Barwana, once part of Zarqawi’s self-declared ‘Islamic Republic of Iraq,’ is now the scene of al Qaeda’s greatest nightmare.”

“The Iraqi people are seeing that the impossible might become the possible after the election,” Sgt. 1st Class Larry Bull of the 3rd Infantry Division told Mr. Smith.

But Iraq becoming a stable democracy depends almost as much on how Iraqis voted as that they voted.

Iraqis chose from 231 different lists, so it will be a week or so before we know who won, and a month or so before a new government is formed, as it is very unlikely any one slate won anywhere close to a majority of the 275 seats in parliament.

If the voting divided sharply along sectarian and ethnic lines, the new government could be crippled at birth.

The interim government is dominated by a coalition of 18 Shi’ite religious parties — some with uncomfortably close ties to Iran’s mullahs — which together won half the January vote.

That percentage will fall, mostly because of the increased Sunni participation but also because the government of Ibrahim al Jaafari is widely viewed among Iraqis as inept and corrupt. The Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shi’ite cleric, endorsed the Jaafari slate in January but did not do so this time.

“Although I am a religious man, all religiously based groups are completely out as far as I am concerned,” said Iraqi Web logger Alaa, a Shi’ite. One key is how many Shi’ites joined Alaa in voting for secular Shi’ites such as former Prime Minister Iwad Allawi and Ahmed Chalabi and Mithaal al Alusi. The other is how the Sunnis voted.

“What gives me hope is that most of the Sunni Arabs I’ve talked to… have voiced support for Allawi because of his stance supporting a united Iraq,” Maj. Mike Doherty of the 3rd Infantry Division told Mr. Smith.

Jack Kelly, a syndicated columnist, is a former Marine and Green Beret and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. He is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.

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