- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraq was like two nations yesterday — a larger one peopled by Shi’ites and Kurds who reveled in their right to vote and celebrated it boisterously, and a smaller one populated by Sunni Arabs who passed the momentous day in silence and fear.

“This is considered a celebration for us,” said Jabbar al-Rubayie, a Shi’ite whose relatives were jailed and executed under the rule of Saddam Hussein. “This is like a telling a small baby inside his mother that he will come out and be able to eat and breathe freely.”

Not content to merely cast his vote, Mr. al-Rubayie made a full day of it. Ignoring occasional explosions and gunfire, the builder and his friends wrapped themselves in Iraqi flags and marched together to the polls, handing sweets to other voters in defiance of the terrorists who had vowed to disrupt the vote.

Huge turnouts were reported in the Kurdish north and in the Shi’ite south, while the pro-government Al Iraqiya television station broadcast images of joyous voters chanting religious slogans as they headed to the polls in the Shi’ite slums of Iraq’s Sadr City.

“Today is a wedding for all Iraqis,” said a caller who identified himself only as Sameer on a televised call-in show from the southern city of Nasariyah.

The mood was much grimmer among Sunni Arabs, for whom the election will formalize the loss of the power and privileges they enjoyed for decades under Saddam. The results will not be known for at least a week, but two Shi’ite-led parties are expected to win most of the votes.

“I will not vote,” said Mehdi Ahmad, a resident of Ramadi, a hotbed of resistance about 60 miles west of Baghdad. “My choices are between [former Iranian exile Abdel Aziz] Hakim, an agent of Iran, or [interim Prime Minister Iyad] Allawi, who is an agent of the occupation.”

Both the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Muslim Scholars Association, the two groups that represent pious Sunnis, called for a boycott of the election.

“In my opinion, whoever doesn’t listen to the instructions of the Muslim Scholars Association is [an infidel],” said Ihab Omar, a Sunni Arab accountant in Saidiya who said he had not voted.

Most of the violence that has torn at Iraq since Saddam was deposed has been concentrated in Sunni areas, and it was no different yesterday.

Clashes were heard overnight in the eastern Baghdad neighborhood of Baladiyat. In the city’s northern neighborhoods of Waziria and Adhamiya, masked men were shooting mortar rockets toward the center of the city.

In volatile western Baghdad, streets were empty apart from the extensive presence of Iraqi police and U.S. patrols.

In Dora, a district populated mostly by Sunni Arabs, streets were largely empty, with repeated explosions and gunfire shaking homes. Iraqi families there reported huddling indoors too afraid to leave their houses, much less head to the voting centers.

In the middle-class Mansour district, two women heading to the polls said they were stopped by men in police uniforms, who took their identification cards, ordered them to return home and threatened to behead them if they returned to the polling center.

“We did not say any word, just returned straight back to our houses,” said Salwa Mahmoud Othman al-Bayati, 49, who works as a secretary at a university. “I was afraid and close to crying.”

Few voters turned up at either of the two voting centers in Ramadi, and U.S. soldiers turned away journalists attempting to enter the election centers in the city, a witness said.

“American soldiers are knocking on doors, asking people to go to vote, but nobody is willing to go,” said an Iraqi reporter based in Ramadi.

In areas where Sunnis and Shi’ites live side by side, such as the Baghdad neighborhood of Zayona, voting was for many an act of courage.

Wamidh al-Zubaidy, a 40-year-old automobile mechanic, said he decided to vote in spite of masked men who went door to door threatening to burn the homes of anyone who participated.

“Then I remembered my brother, who Saddam executed,” Mr. al-Zubaidy said. “I felt a power inside myself, and there was a voice telling me, ‘This should not happen to my son or to any Iraqi.’

“I have to prevent this dictatorship from returning to Iraq,” he said. “I swear, I went over there and I voted with my wife, and we put it in God’s hands.”

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