- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2005

BAGHDAD — Voters trickled into polling stations under tight security today in Iraq, casting ballots and defying terrorists who promised to sabotage the country’s first free elections in a half-century.

After poll workers checked his identification, Iraqi President Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer was one of the first to cast his vote at the convention center serving as election headquarters in the heavily fortified green zone.

Last night’s quiet was shattered when a terrorist’s rocket struck the U.S. Embassy , killing two Americans, as the city battened down in preparation for the vote.

The rocket hit the embassy compound, near the building itself, an embassy official said. A civilian and a U.S. Navy sailor, both assigned to the embassy, died and four Americans were injured.

“It hit near the embassy building,” embassy spokesman Bob Callahan said. “There are two dead, and four who are wounded … all Americans.” The injuries of the wounded were not life-threatening, he said.

The attack deepened fears of a terrorist blitz on election day and demonstrated their ability to strike at the heart of the interim government and American power in the green zone, a vast complex on the west bank of the Tigris River.

It also demonstrated U.S. forces’ ability to respond. The origin of the rocket was tracked and seven terrorist suspects were captured almost immediately after the attack.

Security forces yesterday closed the airport, borders and the roads to automobile traffic. Elsewhere in the country, Iraqis were celebrating in the streets, looking forward to having their voices heard after decades of dictatorship under Saddam Hussein.

Mr. al-Yawer told reporters yesterday he hoped that 50 percent or even two-thirds of Iraqis would vote, although he acknowledged that Sunni participation in the election would be low.

The vote is taking place amid a countrywide security lockdown, curfews, travel restrictions and a massive military presence. But insurgents still managed to break the quiet with prolonged gunfire and the explosions.

Baghdad’s typically traffic-clogged streets were almost abandoned yesterday, and a faint haze gave the city a pale gray tinge.

Concertina wire, with bits of plastic tangled in the lines, flanked the wide street leading to the main traffic circle in the middle-class Jadriya neighborhood, where Iraqi forces slowed traffic long enough to inspect each car.

“People are waiting with caution,” said Hanaa, an Iraqi woman in her 60s who moved in with a friend for the night in Baghdad. “The streets are almost empty. Everybody is waiting for what tomorrow will bring.”

The capital’s bridges were blocked by American soldiers, who carefully checked cars twice. A National Guardsman from Washington, D.C. — nicknamed “Porkchop” — was in charge of checking identification.

Iraqi soldiers chatted with children in the streets, and prayed in the grass next to their tanks as the afternoon drew to a close.

A car bomb in the northern part of the country killed eight persons, and insurgents hit polling centers in several cities, keeping up a wave of violence and intimidation aimed at derailing the vote.

In addition to the Americans killed at the embassy, it was estimated that 17 Iraqis and another American soldier died yesterday in pre-election violence.

But it was not enough to dampen the enthusiasm in northern Kurdistan and cities like Kut in the south.

“People are like in a wedding — people are dancing. In Kut, people are in the streets, there are festivals,” said Hanaa, after getting off the phone with friends of hers in both cities. “But this is Baghdad.”

Gunfights rattled across parts of capital yesterday, as U.S. jets flew overhead in the morning and several explosions shook houses around the U.S.-protected green zone. But most of the people in Baghdad ignored the sounds.

President Bush yesterday promised that the United States would not abandon Iraq after the election.

“As democracy takes hold in Iraq, America’s mission there will continue,” Mr. Bush said in his weekly radio address. “Our military forces, diplomats and civilian personnel will help the newly elected government of Iraq establish security and train Iraqi military police and other forces.”

In a tea shop in the middle-class Shi’ite neighborhood of Khadimiya, men sipped tea and played dominoes as one reviewed a copy of the ballot. Few women ventured out.

“It is a strange quiet,” said one man of his neighborhood in a brief telephone interview. “There are no pedestrians and many, many American patrols.” He asked that his name not be used.

Mr. al-Yawer yesterday said that despite the violence, today “by the will of God, Iraqis will have their first experience in voting after 49 years.”

“Iraqis are now free to choose whoever they feel is trustworthy and capable,” said the president, dressed in traditional robes, lined with gold thread.

He dismissed questions regarding the legitimacy of the vote if the turnout was low because of pre-election assassinations and death threats pasted on houses in various neighborhoods.

“In the United States, most of the time, less that 50 percent head to the polls, and it is a legitimate election. I hope 50 percent or even two-thirds will head to the polling stations, and this will be legitimate,” Mr. al-Yawer said.

• Maya Alleruzzo in Baghdad contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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