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Iraqis Cast Ballots Amid Explosions and Anxiety

Times Staff Writers

As Iraqis began heading to the polls this morning in the nation’s first free election in decades, insurgents launched mortar rounds and sent suicide bombers to attack voting places across the country, killing at least 17 people.

Early turnout varied widely, with strong participation in Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq and the Shiite Muslim south. Steady streams of voters were seen in parts of Baghdad, but hundreds of polling places, mainly in Sunni cities north and west of the capital, did not open on time because of security concerns.

In western Baghdad, four suicide bombers -- three wearing explosive vests and one in a car -- struck polling places, killing a total of 14 people and wounding at least 23. Three people died and seven were injured when mortar fire hit a house near a polling center in the capital’s Sadr City district.

Despite the violence, Iraqi officials said the vote was proceeding smoothly and that 3,000 of a planned 5,000 polling stations had opened by 10:30 a.m. Fareed Ayar, a spokesman for the Iraqi Electoral Commission, held out hope more polling stations would open as the day went on. Voters are selecting a national assembly.

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Scattered blasts were reported outside the capital, in Baqubah to the northeast, Basra in the south, Mosul in the north and near a U.S. air base in the northern city of Kirkuk. The violence this morning came hours after a rocket struck the U.S. Embassy compound in the capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone, killing two Americans.

Interim Iraqi President Ghazi Ajil Yawer, a Sunni Muslim who at one point expressed reservations about the timing of the vote, was one of the first Iraqis to cast his ballot in front of television cameras at a VIP polling center inside the Green Zone. Yawer called the election “our first step toward joining the free world.”

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi voted shortly afterward.

Many voters were expected to wait to see whether insurgent attacks materialized before heading out to vote, but in the overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim city of Najaf, the mood was jubilant.

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“I’m proud of this ink,” said resident Jabber Hajer, 65, proudly waving an index finger soaked to the knuckle in purple ink to prevent multiple voting. “To me, it represents freedom. We want the elections like the thirsty want water. Those who do not participate are the losers.”

Long lines were reported in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniya. Excitement was palpable as dawn broke today and the long-awaited national election finally became a reality.

“We Kurds have been shedding our blood for more than 80 years,” said Karim Abdulla Marif, a cigarette factory worker in traditional baggy pants and a black and white headdress who had just cast his vote. “I wasn’t concerned about voting.... This means something good will finally happen to us. It’s the happiest moment of my life.”

In Baghdad, Jassim Mohammed, 60, arrived at his polling station with his three grown children and passed through the various searches and checks before entering.

“The searches are annoying, but it’s for all of our safety and it is better this way,” he said. “This is our duty.”

As part of a plan to put Iraqi security forces out front, U.S. troops pulled back their positions away from polling centers but maintained a strong presence on the streets. Quick- response units stood by to deal with potential attacks and American jets and helicopters zoomed overhead.

The attack on the embassy Saturday marked a rare direct hit for insurgents, who frequently target the sprawling complex but had never before killed anyone inside.

Elsewhere in the country Saturday, several bombings and attacks on polling places marred the day before elections. But the kind of large-scale insurgent offensive that some had feared did not materialize. Authorities expected violence to worsen as voters ventured to polling places.

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“I think we’ll see millions of people across Iraq vote tomorrow,” Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, operational chief for the more than 150,000 coalition troops here, said Saturday.

During his weekly radio address Saturday, President Bush hailed Iraqi voters, who he said were “standing firm” despite threats. His remarks were aired shortly before the embassy was struck.

“Tomorrow’s elections will happen because of their courage and determination,” Bush said. “In the face of assassination, brutal violence and calculated intimidation, Iraqis continue to prepare for the elections and to campaign for their candidates.”

In addition to choosing a 275-member transitional national assembly, voters are also selecting 18 provincial councils and, in three northern provinces, a Kurdish parliament. The national assembly will write a constitution and form a new government.

U.S. and Iraqi security forces spent Saturday setting up cordons around polling stations in an effort to protect voters.

“We are on the lookout,” said Brig. Gen. Adil Molan Ghaidan, police chief in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad.

More than 14 million Iraqis are eligible to vote, but turnout remains unpredictable amid the violence that has swept across large swaths of Iraq and the deep fissures among the nation’s three major groups -- Shiite Muslim Arabs, Sunni Muslim Arabs and ethnic Kurds.

The campaign has been marked by a climate of fear, insecurity and scant information, with public appearances by candidates rare, and many refusing to give their names because of the threat of assassination.

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This tense capital, its streets devoid of most civilian traffic but bristling with edgy U.S. soldiers and Iraqi forces in black ski masks, was oddly quiet through most of Saturday.

Iraqi army tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled through the capital for the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein. At one major intersection, an Iraqi carrier offered free rides to children.

Security measures included restrictions on driving, a shutdown of Baghdad’s international airport and the closure of the country’s borders.

Reports circulated that insurgents had stolen police trucks, ambulances and uniforms and were planning to launch suicide attacks from those vehicles.

A U.S. soldier was killed in a roadside explosion in western Baghdad, authorities reported.

After nightfall, military trucks rolled through Baghdad’s streets shining high-powered spotlights and using loudspeakers to warn residents to stay indoors during the new curfew hours and heed the ban on driving.

Sporadic bursts of gunfire resounded through the darkened streets.

The rocket attack on the embassy compound occurred shortly before 8 p.m., triggering a wail of sirens from the Green Zone, a sealed-off swath of central Baghdad that is home to Western diplomats, contract workers, U.S. troops and others. The Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission, which is conducting the elections, is also housed there.

The rocket struck a building connected to the U.S. Embassy’s annex in Hussein’s former Republican Palace, an official statement said. The huge palace houses much of the embassy’s office space. A State Department spokesman in Washington said a Defense Department civilian and a Navy sailor were killed and four other Americans were wounded in the attack.

With the help of surveillance video, 1st Cavalry Division soldiers were able to trace and arrest seven suspects believed to have taken part in the attack.

The embassy in Baghdad, one of the largest U.S. missions in the world, sits behind two cordons of concrete blast walls and a series of security barriers, checkpoints and body searches -- all testament to its location in one of the world’s most hostile environments for U.S. personnel.

Outside the capital, a suicide attack earlier in the day in the small Kurdish town of Khanaqin, near the Iranian border, heightened fears that insurgents might try to infiltrate polling stations with bombs or suicide belts. The bomber killed eight people near a police station after detonating an explosives-laden vest. Six others were injured, according to a source at the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a leading Kurdish political party.

Despite the increased security presence, insurgents hit five polling centers around Baqubah, an ethnically divided regional capital northeast of Baghdad.

In and around the city of Kirkuk in the north, seven election centers were attacked with small-arms or mortar fire, Lt. Col. Yadgar Mohammed said, operations room director for the Iraqi national guard in Kirkuk.

In southern Basra, U.S. and Iraqi troops sealed off borders, padlocking gates leading to Iran, blocking roads to Kuwait and closing the Umm al Qasr seaport leading to the Persian Gulf.

In Baghdad, hundreds of young men showed up near the cavernous Convention Center for $200-a-day jobs guarding polling stations.

“I’ve been without a job ever since the war, so I signed up for this job because it seems to be honorable and I’d like to be a part of it,” said Abbass Mihseen, 42, a former Iraqi army officer.

At a schoolhouse being used as a polling center in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood, election workers cleared metal desks and set up cardboard voting booths.

“Everything is ready for tomorrow,” said Dhia Fakhir, 38, manager of the voting center. “Nobody resigned.”

By late afternoon, Carlos Valenzuela, a Colombian who is the top U.N. advisor to the electoral commission, declared that matters were proceeding apace.

“So far, things are going ahead of schedule,” he said.

But election preparations were not as smooth in other parts of the country, particularly in Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland to the north and west of the capital.

Sunnis dominated Iraq for decades but lost power following the U.S.-led toppling of Hussein, also a Sunni. Many Sunni clerics and politicians have vowed to boycott the vote, seeing it as another step toward their minority community’s marginalization.

Mohammed Jobouri, head of the electoral commission in the largely Sunni province of Salahuddin, predicted that only 10% of voters would turn out in Tikrit, Hussein’s birthplace. It is possible that no one will vote in the restive city of Samarra, he added.

“It’s all because of the bad security, violence and terrorist attacks recently,” he said.

Some Shiite clerics have preached that anyone who does not vote today will face the wrath of God, and the country’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has pushed hard for a strong turnout. Shiite leaders see the election as a means of gaining their long-denied place of power in Iraq, where Shiites are in the majority.

Times staff writers Alissa J. Rubin in Baghdad, Jeffrey Fleishman in Sulaymaniya, Ashraf Khalil in Najaf and Tom Hamburger in Washington and special correspondents in Samarra, Basra, Kirkuk and Baghdad contributed to this report.


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