Monday, January 31, 2005

BAGHDAD — Triumphant Iraqis yesterday defied the terrorists, turning out by the millions to vote in Iraq’s first free elections in almost 50 years.

Voters joyfully waved celebratory purple-stained fingers aloft, proof that they had cast their ballots, defying a vicious campaign of assassination and intimidation to keep Iraqis from the polls.

“Freedom has won,” said Adel Lami of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq. “We have conquered terrorism.”

Early estimates put the turnout at 72 percent, but Iraqi officials revised that figure, saying it was the result of the “enormous” enthusiasm of election observers.

Another official estimated that about 8 million, or slightly less than 60 percent, of the 14 million eligible voters had turned out — about the same percentage as in the most recent national elections in the United States and Britain.

Some polling boxes overflowed, and new boxes were brought in to replace them before polls closed.

By afternoon, a festive mood took hold in parts of Baghdad as residents realized that the insurgents had failed to disrupt the election and that voters had turned out in large numbers.

As expected, there were a number of terrorist attacks, mostly by suicide bombers striking at polling places. Authorities reported at least 44 persons killed in more than a half-dozen incidents, much fewer than what had been feared.

A sober note was struck late in the day when a Royal Air Force C-130 transport plane crashed north of Baghdad. Initial reports from London said about 15 British troops had been killed.

Yesterday’s turnout was highest in areas inhabited by the long-oppressed Shi’ite minority, including southern Iraq and parts of Baghdad, and in the Kurdish-inhabited far north of the country.

Anecdotal reports suggested much lower turnouts in Sunni Arab areas such as Ramadi, Fallujah and Tikrit, most of which remain too dangerous for reporters to visit. But in Baghdad’s Sunni district of Harithiya, a motorcade of happy voters went by with loudspeakers blaring, shooting their guns in the air.

Even before the voting was finished, leading politicians were predicting that Sunni leaders would be included in political deal-cutting as a 275-member national assembly begins work on forming a government and drafting a new constitution.

No official election results were expected for a week to 10 days, but a senior official in a Shi’ite coalition linked to the revered cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani was predicting victory.

“According to our public-opinion surveys in all the provinces, we won,” Ammar al-Hakim of the United Iraqi Alliance told Reuters news agency. “The United Iraqi Alliance list scored a sweeping victory.”

Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the spokesman for the Islamic Dawa Party, which is part of the same coalition, said the alliance would reach out to other parties.

“The political pressure is so large that all of us have to work together,” he said.

Men and women, people in wheelchairs and groups of young men walked in the early morning calm to their local polling stations in the capital, taking advantage of an unusual sense of safety created by a nationwide security lockdown that kept most vehicles off the streets.

“The street was crowded since 7 a.m. I woke up to the voices of the people on the street — I did not expect such a number,” said Thaer, a Sunni engineer who lives in eastern Baghdad, as he sat chatting with his neighborhood friends.

“Everybody feels that he is human today and can have a free voice. No one wanted to lose his chance,” he said, elated at the chance to cast his ballot. “I think today will show these terrorists lost their chance in this country.

“But I want to say one thing: I want to thank the U.S. soldiers for bringing this to Iraq,” said the ex-soldier who had been imprisoned by deposed ruler Saddam Hussein. “Without them, we would have to vote for Saddam always.”

About 300,000 Iraqi and American forces secured the streets and polling sites in a massive security operation that shut down all vehicle movement and created multiple cordons around voting centers.

Voters were searched as many as three times before being allowed into the election centers, and Iraqi national guardsmen even checked babies wrapped in blankets.

Even so, insurgents did break through with at least nine suicide bomb attacks, most of them in and around Baghdad, and rockets boomed throughout the day.

In the restive market town of Baqouba, north of Baghdad, there were 30 attacks in 24 hours, although a senior U.S. military official said 24 of them had “no impact.”

One of the deadliest came in Hillah, south of Baghdad, where a suicide bomber killed four persons on a bus filled with voters.

Even so, the violence fell far short of the bloodbath proportions that had been threatened by terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi.

“Today, the terrorists have lost the war,” declared Interior Ministry spokesman Thaer Nakib.

President Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer cast the first vote yesterday at a polling station inside the U.S.-fortified green zone. Dressed in a gold-trimmed white robe and traditional headgear, he and his wife, Nasreen Berwari, filled out their ballots and placed them in sealed plastic ballot boxes.

“I feel very exuberant,” said Mr. al-Yawer as he showed his ink-stained finger to reporters. “This is the first step toward joining the free world.”

The president, a Sunni, heads one of the secular electoral lists.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a Shi’ite who leads another list, also beamed and shook hands with supporters after he emerged from a VIP polling site tucked inside the green zone.

“This is history in the making,” he said. “It is a momentous point in history. … I feel great, really believe me, this is one of our big achievements.”

In Baghdad’s typically busy Shi’ite neighborhood of Karrada, Iraqis began to slowly trickle out of their homes early in the morning, walking in groups of two or more, husbands and wives and mothers, daughters and granddaughters.

Adnan Mehdi, 65, dressed in a threadbare blue pinstripe suit and red tie, proudly beckoned to two journalists.

“Where have you been? I was the first voter here,” he said, showing off his purple-inked finger.

Samar Shakur walked hand in hand with her 70-year-old grandmother, Khadra Idriss, from the Karrada polling site, both with the telltale ink marks.

Explosions sounded throughout the capital in the early morning and again in the afternoon, but people appeared to take them in stride, hardened by months of violence that has claimed the lives of thousands of Iraqis.

Raghdad Kassim, 28, a pharmacy worker, voted with her mother, Intesar Mohammed, at the Masrja Ayun Primary School in Karrada, despite weeks of death threats pasted across Baghdad neighborhoods.

“All the Iraqi people are hoping for this election to take place. I am not afraid of coming to vote, and I hope that the list that I voted for will be good for Iraq. Our future is bright, inshallah [God willing],” she said.

As poll-closing time neared, Karrada’s main thoroughfare still looked like a pedestrian mall. Most shops stayed closed all day, but old men had gathered to discuss the day’s events as they drank tea and played dominoes with purple-stained fingers.

Women, who earlier in the day had stayed indoors, began to emerge, strolling two, three and four abreast in the middle of the streets to the polling booths.

“Women are supposed to vote,” said Assia Witwit, wife of Justice Minister Malik Dohan al-Hassan, who voted in the green zone. “The women are more interested in this because they want to get their rights.”

Rajaa Karzai, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council that led the country before the transfer of power to Iraqis in June, agreed.

“I can’t tell you how thrilled I am,” she said, her head covered in a scarf. “This brings the woman so she feels like a person and she feels she there is no difference between her and men. Now she feels equal to man.”

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