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Iraqi Turnout Trumps Violence

Times Staff Writer

Millions of Iraqis defied violence, calls for a boycott and a legacy of despotism to cast ballots Sunday in the nation’s first multiparty elections in half a century.

Some Iraqis traveled long distances to get to their polling booths, enduring multiple checkpoints and several searches by U.S. and Iraqi troops. Afterward, they waved fingers dipped in purple ink, having cast ballots for a 275-seat national assembly that will be entrusted with forming a transitional government and writing a constitution by year’s end.

Preliminary poll results could be known as early as today; final results are expected by week’s end.

Some voters said they saw the election as an act of liberation. Others said it represented their opposition to the insurgency gripping large swaths of the country. A few voters said they hoped their ballots would speed a U.S. pullout from Iraq.

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At least 44 people were killed in nine suicide blasts and insurgents’ mortar attacks, but it was not the nationwide bloodbath that many had feared. At least nine British troops died when a British C-130 military transport plane crashed north of Baghdad, scattering wreckage over a large area. Authorities have not determined the cause of the crash, which occurred about half an hour after polls closed.

An Iraqi and U.S.-enforced lockdown of the capital and other areas succeeded in averting the kind of high-casualty strikes that could have scared off voters and doomed the entire effort.

Election officials offered a rough estimate that 60% of the 14 million eligible voters participated in the poll. Any turnout short of 50% would probably fuel criticism that the election did not represent the will of the people, Western and Iraqi officials have said.

As expected, Shiite Muslims and Kurds turned out in overwhelming numbers, but Sunni Arabs who dominated the country politically until Saddam Hussein’s ouster largely stayed away. Voters in three predominantly Sunni Arab provinces -- Al Anbar, Salahuddin and Nineveh, the latter including the city of Mosul -- appeared certain to be underrepresented in the final count.

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Kurds and Shiites proudly displayed their ink-stained index fingers, proof that they had been part of a day many considered momentous. In Shiite Najaf and the Kurdish north, it was hard to find someone who had not voted.

“Today is a day of celebration that makes me forget the sons that I lost,” declared Sayyid Abbas Shubbar, who wept as he cast his ballot inside a middle school in Najaf’s Judayda neighborhood. Shubbar, 65, said Hussein’s government had executed his four grown sons.

Some voters broke into song and dance that seemed to overshadow, at least for the moment, this nation’s recent history of mass murders and executions, its shattered infrastructure and chronic shortages of gasoline and power.

“This is a historic day for Iraq,” declared Abdul Munaim Abdul Karim, a 63-year-old engineer and secular Shiite who wore a Russian fur hat and said he and his wife trekked six miles to find their polling place in Baghdad’s middle-class Karada neighborhood. “We feel we are really doing something good.”

President Bush hailed the election as a “resounding success.”

“The world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East,” Bush said in televised comments from the White House. “By participating in free elections, the Iraqi people have firmly rejected the anti-democratic ideology of the terrorists.”

Washington hopes that the transition process will eventually sap support from the insurgency and allow for a substantial reduction of the 150,000 U.S. troops stationed here.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has clashed with the Bush administration over Iraq, released a statement saying the “success of the election augurs well for the transition process.”

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U.N. officials helped organize the election and Annan on Sunday offered more U.N. assistance in future elections and the writing of the Iraqi constitution, saying this was “a time for reconciliation on all sides.”

Slates representing the nation’s Kurdish and Shiite leadership were certain to have won many votes, analysts said. There was also widespread agreement that interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s slate had done well.

The banning of most vehicles on the streets denied insurgents their most effective weapon, the car bomb. Scores of checkpoints, barricades and heavy troop deployments curbed insurgents’ mobility, especially in the capital.

Large-scale roundups of suspected insurgents in recent weeks, including the arrests of several purported leaders linked to Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant, may have weakened their ability to strike.

Voters were told to open their jackets, a precaution against suicide vests, before approaching the first line of police officers. Most polling places were in schools.

About 150,000 Iraqi forces were deployed near the polling booths, with U.S. troops patrolling farther back. U.S. fighter jets and helicopters buzzed overhead.

In Kurdish cities and towns and along a string of mountain hamlets, voters appeared at polling places before dawn. They had polished their shoes; some wore their best suits. Many of them scurried through snow and skipped over mud.

Also on the ballot was a separate election for the parliament in the northern Kurdish region. Kurds want to add oil-rich Kirkuk to their semiautonomous zone. The city has been a hotbed of sectarian tensions.

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“The fate of the Kurds rests with this vote,” said Falah Mustafa Siddiq, mayor of Qarahanjir, a town of 10,000 Kurds expelled from Kirkuk by Hussein in the 1980s. “This is very important. It is out of the question for the Kurds to lose Kirkuk to the Arabs.”

Abdulwahab Mohammed Ali, a farmer forced out of Kirkuk in 1988, had to get through razor wire and past Iraqi and U.S. soldiers to cast his vote. He made his way toward hundreds of other Kurds waiting beneath snow-dusted mountains. He looked at the indelible ink on his index finger.

“I voted so we Kurds could restore our rights,” said Ali, wearing baggy pants and a traditional headdress. “I never expected in my life that I’d be voting in an Iraqi national election.”

Some Sunni Arabs who voted portrayed their participation as a vote against the U.S.-led “occupation” that many Sunnis have condemned.

“We came here to say no to the violence, torture and killing -- enough with the occupation forces, enough bloodshed and killing of Iraqis,” said Dr. Naeem Ahmed in the insurgent stronghold and largely Sunni city of Samarra, north of the capital, where voting was light. “We tried the democracy brought to us by the Americans, and it was only killing.... So now we are coming here to see Iraqi democracy.”

Still, some Sunni Arab leaders condemned the election and alleged that a concerted effort had been made to hold back ballot materials to suppress the Sunni vote.

“The elections were not honest or just,” said Mishaan Jaburi, a leading Sunni politician and newspaper owner who favors reconciliation with the former members of Hussein’s deposed Baath Party. “Some real violations took place.”

Intimidation was a factor in the low turnout in Sunni areas. Insurgents, who operate mostly in Sunni regions, had threatened to kill anyone who voted. But the Sunni clerical and political establishment also had backed a boycott and discouraged voting.

A group of nonpartisan Iraqi election monitors, the Iraqi Election Information Network, said it had dispatched 10,000 observers to almost 80% of the polling centers and documented various irregularities: shuttered polling places, absent staff, missing voting materials. Nonetheless, the monitors said the problems were “modest under the circumstances.”

“The election appears to have been conducted without systematic flaws and in accordance with basic international standards,” it concluded.

In the capital, the long-awaited election day seemed divided into two parts: an early-morning period marked by attacks and low turnout, and a subsequent stretch of swelling voter participation.

As the day wore on, voters of all ethnic and religious groups appeared drawn into a seemingly contagious celebration. Some U.S. troops, who have been viewed with scorn here, were stunned at the positive reaction some Iraqis showed them.

“We’re used to kids throwing grenades at us, not kicking soccer balls around with us,” said 1st Lt. Cole Derosa, as his company checked on security at a festive Baghdad polling place. “I’m amazed to see this is happening in Iraq. We’ve had 11 months of combat.”

But the elation could be short lived. Not even U.S. officials, thrilled at what they described as a successful election, predicted that the violence would diminish after election day.

The vote appears certain to intensify the broad sense of disenfranchisement among the nation’s Sunni Arab population.

The electoral effort now moves to a phase of certifying winners of seats in the transitional national assembly and forming a full government, a process that seems likely to drag on for weeks, if not months.

Times staff writers Ashraf Khalil in Najaf and Jeffrey Fleishman in Sulaymaniya contributed to this report, as did special correspondents in Samarra, Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk.


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