Monday, January 31, 2005

Historic Election in Iraq..

'I am voting for peace. I would have crawled here if I had to' By Jenny Booth, Times Online Some couldn't read, but knew their party's identification number on the ballot. Others couldn't see, but were led to the polls by police.Across Iraq, and especially in the Shia south and the Kurdish north, Iraqis went to the polls expressing determination and pride, together with hope that the election will improve their hard lives.Samir Hassan lost his leg in a Baghdad bombing but that did not stop him reaching the polling station. "I would have crawled here if I had to. I don't want terrorists to kill other Iraqis like they tried to kill me," said Hassan, 32, propping himself up on worn metal crutches as he queued in the working class district of Hurriya, a mixed Sunni and Shia neighbourhood near the old city. "Today I am voting for peace. It is the only way, we must vote against them," he added. With his shoddy clothes hanging off him, and his trouser leg folded up beneath his amputated leg, Hassan hardly looked like a campaigner. But in his eyes, resolute and reddened at the edges, and in his face, scarred by the October blast, there was absolute determination.From the early hours, Iraqis like Hassan defied militant threats of violence to stand in long queues that trailed around street corners, waiting to cast their votes for the 275-member National Assembly. At least 36 were killed as militants fired mortars, and on at least eight occasions suicide bombers mingled with voters waiting outside a polling booth. But people continued to vote undeterred. Fathiya Mohammed, 50, proudly held up a thumb stained with the purple ink used to mark those who had voted. "Am I scared? Of course I'm not scared. This is my country," said the elderly woman, dressed in a head-to-toe abaya, who voted in her neighborhood polling station in the small town of Askan, a mixed Sunni and Shia area. "This is democracy," she added. "This is the first day I feel freedom." Some of the first to vote countrywide were policemen, out in force to protect polling centres from attack, part of draconian precautions put in place by US and Iraqi officials. Security was tight. Iraqi police provided much of the frontline protection, checking women's' handbags and even babies wrapped in blankets, while female Iraqi guards patted down women voters. Voters heading into a polling station in a boys school in Baghdad's middle-class Karada district were searched twice, first at an outer perimeter about 40 yards from the school. Then they removed their jackets and the batteries from their cellular phones, which have been used in the past to detonate bombs. Finally they walked past coils of barbed wire under the eyes of sharpshooters on nearby rooftops. Authorities banned cars from the polling stations in order to stop car bombings, a rule that left some people struggling to reach the ballot boxes. In the northern Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah, a man carried 80-year-old Mohammed Karim Khader over his shoulders and trekked the last few steps to the polling station. At a polling place in eastern Baghdad, an Iraqi policeman in a black ski mask tucked his assault rifle under one arm and held the hand of an elderly blind woman to guide her to the polls. One of the early voters was President Ghazi al-Yawar, a Sunni Muslim Arab with a large tribal following, who cast his ballot inside Baghdad's fortress-like Green Zone. He emerged from the booth with a smile, his right index finger stained with bright blue ink to show he had voted, and was handed a small Iraqi flag by an official."Thanks be to God," he told reporters."I hope everyone will go out and vote." His wish appeared to have been granted. By lunchtime, an official from Iraq's Electoral Commission was speaking of a massive 72 per cent turnout, far higher than expected. Enthusiasm for voting was highest in mixed Shia-Sunni areas like Askan, and in Shia districts, where in some places more than 90 per cent of the registered voters cast their ballot. In mainly Shia Basra, Iraq's second biggest city, hundreds of voters queued patiently at polling centres. Within a few hours, four voting centres in the city had been hit by blasts but no one was killed. "I am not afraid," said Samir Khalil Ibrahim, a young man voting alone."This is like a festival for all Iraqis." In the shrine city of Najaf in the Shia heartland, hundreds of people walked calmly to polling stations. Security was very high around Najaf, the scene of earlier sectarian attacks by Sunni militants hoping to delay elections by triggering a civil war. "This is a wedding for all Iraqis. I congratulate all Iraqis on their newfound freedom and democracy," said Jaida Hamza, dressed in a black Islamic veil that also hid her face. Shias, who make up 60 per cent of Iraq's people, are expected to win the vote, overturning years of oppression. In the relatively secure Kurdish north, people flowed steadily to the polls. One illiterate man in Arbil, 76-year-old Said Rasool, came alone and was turned away, unable to read the ballot paper. He said he would return with someone to help. In Kirkuk, a city divided between Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, Kurds turned out in force, as expected, but there were signs Arabs and Turkmen were following through on a threat to boycott, angered by what they see as voting rules that favour Kurds. By comparison, polling stations in mainly Sunni cities such as Ramadi and Samarra were virtually deserted in the morning, although later voting started to pick up. In Samarra, the crackle of gunfire was heard minutes after polls opened, but by midday hundreds of people were voting. One woman, covered head-to-toe in black robes, kept her face concealed, but said she voted with pride. In nearby Baiji, some people were unable to vote because electoral officials failed to turn up. "We are waiting for the manager with the key," said an election worker, apologising for the mix-up. In Baquba, a rebellious city northeast of Baghdad, crowds clapped and cheered at one voting station. " I came here to vote for our goal, which is freedom," said Abu Ahmed, a 55-year-old Shia voter in Baquba. In Mosul, a mixed Sunni and Kurd city in the north which has been the scene of some of the worst insurgent attacks in recent months, officials said turnout was suprisingly high. "So far it's gone very well, much better than expected," said a US army officer. Even in Fallujah, the devastated Sunni city that was a militant stronghold until a US assault in November, a slow stream of people turned out, confounding expectations. "We want to be like other Iraqis, we don't want to always be in opposition," said Ahmed Jassim, smiling after voting. The prospect of impending violence was never far away. When an unexplained boom sounded near one Baghdad voting station, some women put their hands to their mouths and whispered prayers. Others continued walking calmly to the voting stations. Several shouted in unison: "We have no fear." Electoral commission official Mijm Towirish said the fact that voters came to the polls showed Iraqis "broke a barrier of fear." Voters all across the country said they hoped the election would bring them security, jobs and a better future. "I don't have a job. I hope the new government will give me a job," said one voter, Rashi Ayash, 50, a former Iraqi lieutenant colonel. Later some local Shias handed out sweets and chocolates at the Hurriya polling station after casting their vote, giving what in many parts of Baghdad was a bloody day, a small sense of revelry. Across Iraq, joy broke out as the day went on. At one polling place in Baghdad, soldiers and voters joined hands in a dance. At another Baghdad polling station, a small group ululated as Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, a descendant of Iraq's last king, went to cast his vote. Ali leads a constitutional monarchy slate in the election. Baghdad's mayor was overcome with emotion by the turnout of voters at City Hall, where he said thousands were celebrating."I cannot describe what I am seeing. It is incredible. This is a vote for the future, for the children, for the rule of law, for humanity, for love," Alaa al-Tamimi told Reuters.

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