Iraqis Vote Despite Attacks; 44 Killed
Sun Jan 30, 2005 15:49


Iraqis Vote Despite Attacks; 44 Killed
By Mariam Fam
The Associated Press

Sunday 30 January 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraqis defied threats of violence and calls for a boycott to cast ballots in Iraq's first free election in a half-century Sunday. Insurgents seeking to wreck the vote struck polling stations with a string of suicide bombings and mortar volleys, killing at least 44 people, including nine suicide bombers.

A British C-130 military transport plane crashed north of Baghdad, and the wreckage was strewn over a large area, officials said. C-130s can carry dozens of passengers, though there was no word on how many were on the crashed plane, and the number of casualties and cause of the crash were not immediately known.

Women in black abayas whispered prayers at the sound of a nearby explosion as they waited to vote at one Baghdad polling station. But the mood for many was upbeat: Civilians and policemen danced with joy, and some streets were packed with voters walking shoulder-to-shoulder to vote at five polling stations where photographers were allowed. One elderly woman sat on a wooden cart, wheeled to the polls by a relative; another man carried a disabled 80-year-old on his back.

"This is democracy," said Karfia Abbasi, holding up a thumb stained with purple ink to prove she had voted.

But polls were largely deserted all day in many cities of the Sunni Triangle north and west of the capital, particularly Fallujah, Ramadi and Beiji. In Baghdad's mainly Sunni Arab area of Azamiyah, the neighborhood's four polling centers did not open at all, residents said.

A low Sunni turnout could undermine the new government that will emerge from the vote and worsen tensions among the country's ethnic, religious and cultural groups.

Officials said turnout among the 14 million eligible voters appeared higher than the 57 percent that had been predicted, although it was too soon to tell for sure.

Prominent Sunni politician Adnan Pachachi, who in recent months had called for the vote to be postponed because of violence, said he was "relieved" and "encouraged" by a turnout he said was better than expected, even in Fallujah and Mosul.

"I think this is an important first step towards establishing a democratic system in Iraq," Pachachi, who is standing as a candidate in the vote, told CNN.

Casting his vote, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi called it "the first time the Iraqis will determine their destiny."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the election was "not perfect" but was better than expected. "What we're seeing here is the voice of freedom," she said on ABC's "This Week."

Shiite Muslims, estimated at 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, were expected to vote in large numbers, encouraged by clerics who hope their community will gain power after generations of oppression by the Sunni minority.

The election will create a 275-member National Assembly and 18 provincial legislatures. The assembly will draw up the country's permanent constitution and will select a president and two deputy presidents, who in turn will name a new prime minister and Cabinet to serve for 11 months until new elections are held.

The election is a major test of President Bush's goal of promoting democracy in the Middle East. If successful, it also could hasten the day when the United States brings home its 150,000 troops. More than 1,400 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, including a Marine killed in combat Sunday in Iraq's restive Anbar province.

Guerrilla attacks began within two hours of the balloting's start Sunday morning. Over the day Baghdad saw eight suicide attacks, mostly against polling sites, using bombers on foot with explosives strapped to their bodies since private cars were banned from the streets.

In one of the deadliest attacks of the day, a bomber got onto a minibus carrying voters to the polls near Hillah, south of Baghdad, and detonated his explosives, killing himself and at least four other people, the Polish military said.

Deadly mortar volley... Baghdad's Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City and struck voters at several sites in Balad, and Kirkuk in the north and Mahawil south of the capital. Across the country, at least 35 people and nine suicide bombers were killed.

The group al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for election-day attacks in a Web statement, although the claim could not be verified. The group's leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is said to be behind many of the suicide car-bombings, kidnappings and beheadings of foreigners in Iraq, and his group vowed to kill those who ventured out to vote.

A few hours after polls closed at 5 p.m., thunderous explosions reverberated through central Baghdad, though their cause was unknown.

Just before the close, one official with the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq put turnout at 72 percent, but he later said that did not include the largely Sunni provinces of Anbar and Nineveh, and the commission said the figure was based on "very rough, word-of-mouth estimates gathered informally from the field. It will take some time for the IECI to issue accurate figures on turnout."

Several hundred people turned out to vote in eastern districts of the heavily Sunni city of Mosul ? Iraq's third largest city and a center for insurgent violence in past months. But in western parts of Mosul, clashes erupted between guerrillas and Iraqi soldiers.

Voter turnout was brisk in Shiite Muslim and mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad, and U.S. officials said some stations ran out of ballots. In the small town of Askan in the so-called "triangle of death" south of Baghdad, 20 people waited in line at each of several polling centers.

Rumors of impending violence were rife. 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."

"Am I scared? Of course I'm not scared. This is my country," said 50-year-old Fathiya Mohammed, wearing a head-to-toe abaya cloak.

At one site, an Iraqi policeman in a black ski mask tucked his assault rifle under one arm and took the hand of an elderly blind woman, guiding her to the polls.

In Ramadi, U.S. troops tried to coax voters with loudspeakers, preaching the importance of every ballot. The governor of the mostly Sunni province of Salaheddin, Hamad Hmoud Shagti, went on the radio to lobby for a higher turnout. "This is a chance for you as Iraqis to assure your and your children's future," he said.

Security was tight. About 300,000 Iraqi and American troops were on the streets and on standby to protect voters, who entered polling stations under loops of razor wire and the watchful eye of rooftop sharpshooters.

Final results of the election will not be known for seven to 10 days, but a preliminary tally could come as early as late Sunday.

A ticket endorsed by the country's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is expected to fare best among the 111 candidate lists. However, no faction is expected to win an outright majority, meaning possibly weeks of political deal-making before a new prime minister is chosen.

The elections will also give Kurds a chance to gain more influence in Iraq after long years of marginalization under the Baath Party that ruled the country for 34 years.

"This proves that we are now free," said Akar Azad, 19, who came to the polls with his wife Serwin Suker and sister Bigat. In addition to the assembly and provincial votes, Kurds are also choosing a regional parliament for their zone of northern Iraq.

Iraqis in 14 nations also held the last of three days of overseas balloting on Sunday, with officials in Australia extending polling station hours because of an earlier riot and bomb scare.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Sunday's balloting "the first step" toward democracy. "It's a beginning, not an end," he said.

Go to Original

We'll Go on Cheering 'Democracy' - and the Iraqis Will Go On Dying
By Robert Fisk
The Independent on Sunday U.K.

Sunday 30 January 2005

They were supposed to be preparing for an election, but they are bracing themselves for rivers of blood. Robert Fisk reports from Baghdad.

In Baghdad yesterday, they were supposed to be preparing for an election. But they were preparing for war.

The American Bradley armoured vehicles on the streets, the US foot patrols, the old Russian personnel carriers that Saddam Hussein bought on the cheap from the Soviet Union - now dressed up in the dull camouflage paint of the "new" Iraqi army - the hooded and masked policemen; they don't look like the prelude to an experiment in democracy. They are waiting for the rivers of blood of which the insurgents have warned. But there will be democracy in Iraq.

The mortars rained down yesterday morning on the Green Zone where the US and British embassies are located. A "thumpety-thump-thump" brought the American Apache choppers over the surrounding highways in less than 30 seconds, but the insurgents had disappeared. Then a fierce gun battle broke out in the centre of Baghdad between Americans and insurgents. Too late again, the gunmen got away. Fantasy attacks before a fantasy election. Many Iraqis do not know the names of the candidates, let alone their policies. But there will be democracy in Iraq.

The media boys and girls will be expected to play along with this. "Transition of power," says the hourly logo on CNN's live coverage of the election, though the poll is for a parliament to write a constitution and the men who will form a majority within it will have no power.

They have no control over their oil, no authority over the streets of Baghdad, let alone the rest of the country, no workable army or loyal police force. Their only power is that of the American military and its 150,000 soldiers whom we could see at the main Baghdad intersections yesterday.

The big television networks have been given a list of five polling stations where they will be "allowed" to film. Close inspection of the list shows that four of the five are in Shia Muslim areas - where the polling will probably be high - and one in an upmarket Sunni area where it will be moderate. Every working-class Sunni polling station will be out of bounds to the press. I wonder if the television lads will tell us that today when they show voters "flocking" to the polls.

In the Karada district, we found three truckloads of youths yesterday, all brandishing Iraqi flags, all - like the unemployed who have been sticking posters to Baghdad's walls - paid by the government to "advertise" the election. And there was a cameraman from Iraqi state television, which is controlled by Iyad Allawi's "interim" government.

The "real" story is outside Baghdad, in the tens of thousands of square miles outside the government's control and outside the sight of independent journalists, especially in the four Sunni Muslim provinces which are the heart of Iraq's insurrection.

Right up to election hour, US jets were continuing to bomb "terrorist targets", the latest in the city of Ramadi - which, though Messrs Bush and Blair do not say so - is now in the hands of the insurgents as surely as Fallujah was before the Americans destroyed it.

Every month since Mr Allawi, the former CIA agent, was appointed premier by the US government, American air strikes on Iraq have been increasing exponentially. There are no "embedded" reporters on the giant American air base at Qatar or aboard the US carriers in the Gulf from which these ever-increasing and ever more lethal sorties are being flown. They go unrecorded, unreported, part of the "fantasy" war which is all too real to the victims but hidden from us journalists as we cower in Baghdad.

The reality is that much of Iraq has become a free-fire zone - for reference, see under "Vietnam" - and the Americans are conducting this secret war as efficiently and as ruthlessly as they conducted their earlier bombing campaign against Iraq between 1991 and 2003, an air raid a day, or two raids, or three. Then they were attacking Saddam's "military targets" in Iraq. Now they are attacking "foreign terrorist targets" or "anti-Iraqi forces". I especially like this one since the foreigners involved in this violence happen in reality to be Americans who are mostly attacking Iraqis.

And not only in Sunni areas. Just this month, for example, US aircraft fired missiles at a students' dormitory at the University of Erbil in the Kurdish north of the country. Among the wounded Kurds was a survivor of Saddam's gassing of Halabja - one of the reasons Mr Bush and Mr Blair supposedly invaded this wretched place. No explanations from the Americans.

So why were they bombing Kurds? To warn them that they will not be given independence? Or to stop them feuding over the city of Mosul, which "new" Iraq wants to keep inside the national territory, not surrender to some future "Kurdistan"?

Yes, I know how it's all going to be played out. Iraqis bravely vote despite the bloodcurdling threats of the enemies of democracy. At last, the American and British policies have reached fruition - a real and functioning democracy will be in place so we can leave soon. Or next year. Or in a decade or so. Merely to hold these elections - an act of folly in the eyes of so many Iraqis - will be a "success".

The Shias will vote en masse, the Sunnis will largely abstain. Shia Muslim power will be enshrined for the first time in an Arab country. And then the manipulation will begin and the claims of fraud and the admissions that the elections might be "flawed" in some areas.

But we'll go on saying "democracy" and "freedom" over and over again, the insurgency will continue and grow even more violent, and the Iraqis will go on dying. But there will be democracy in Iraq.


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