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‘We Didn’t Get Hit With Anything’

Times Staff Writer

On a last-minute vote drive Sunday in northwest Mosul, Army Lt. Brock Hershberger approached a man wearing an olive-colored suit and brown leather shoes. “Have you voted yet?” Hershberger asked through a translator. The man responded that he’d heard the lines were long.

Of the problems that U.S. and Iraqi forces anticipated during the run-up to election day in this insurgent stronghold, long lines to cast ballots were not at the top of the list.

“He won’t have to wait more than 15 minutes,” Hershberger said. “Tell him, in America we wait four hours to vote.”

Attendance at Mosul’s polling sites was reportedly mixed, and there was no official tally of voter turnout by day’s end. But some U.S. officials estimated that 175,000 had come out in Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital. About 54,000 voters were said to have turned out in the city of 1.8 million.

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Sporadic violence punctuated the day, but there were no mass casualties or suicide attacks in the city.

“It was tentative at first, but by midday and afternoon, people were coming out in droves,” said Army Maj. David Spencer, intelligence officer with the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division.

A little before the polls opened at 7 a.m., a group of paratroopers from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division heard the sound of several explosions near their outpost in northwest Mosul.

“That was our polling site,” one soldier said.

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But the nearby voting station at a school was left unscathed, and by 7:30 the first two voters had cast their ballots.

Throughout the day, soldiers monitored the turnout by radio, with reports coming in every half an hour. The trickle of voters was turning into a stream.

Staff Sgt. Joshua Green, a lone Marine who spent the day at the school with 30 Iraqi Intervention Force soldiers, seemed pleased. Dressed in the uniform of his Iraqi counterparts, Green sported a mustache he had grown to fit in with them.

“I didn’t think people were going to show up,” he said. “One person showed up in the first hour.”

But at one point there were 200 voters in the school, and by day’s end, 2,098 people had cast their ballots, more than 100 of them women.

“I’m pretty surprised we didn’t get hit with anything,” Green said.

There were several mortar attacks and gunfights throughout the city Sunday. At least two Iraqis were killed. Seven U.S. soldiers were injured when an insurgent lobbed a hand grenade over the wall of a polling site in northwest Mosul, just after the gates had closed for the day.

In the Arabi neighborhood, roadside explosives were detonated near a convoy carrying the deputy governor of Mosul, a candidate in the elections. The blast killed one of his guards.

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In Sinjar, north of Mosul, gunmen tried to raid a polling station, and in Tall Afar, also north of the city, gunmen and Iraqi soldiers clashed for several hours after polls opened, curbing turnout. But close to the Syrian border, the town of Rabia had an 80% turnout, election officials said.

“From where we were, to where we got, I think we really pulled off a successful run,” said Spencer, the intelligence officer, referring to November and December, when Mosul’s police force deserted stations throughout the city and the entire election staff quit.

Trying to get out the vote in Mosul, a city with a mixed population of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, Hershberger and his soldiers patrolled throughout the afternoon, driving by men playing cards in the street and a woman cooking in little pots. Young children took over the roads, playing soccer amid heaps of trash.

“I don’t know where their parents are,” remarked one of the soldiers. “Maybe they’re voting.”

At some polling stations, Iraqi soldiers handed out candy to children and election workers helped voters cast their ballots.

“I’m young, and I want to live my life in peace and stability,” said Basim Salim Mohammed, an Arab who voted in the Noor neighborhood.

“I came here to challenge the Americans and see for myself where their excuses will lead to, and when they will leave the country. We want nothing more than to live in peace,” Mohammed said.

As the polls closed at 5 p.m., teenagers watched in the gray afternoon light as large military trucks rolled up to gather election workers and drive them, and the ballots, to a central polling site in the city.

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Capt. J.T. Eldridge surveyed one polling station as soldiers began packing up barrier material and concertina wire.

The day had ended -- for his soldiers, peacefully. He was looking ahead. In a few days, his outpost would be dismantled, and his soldiers would move to the Marez military base outside the city.

Since leaving Baghdad a month ago, he had bathed only once. Now that election day was over, the future held the promise of something more tangible than democracy for Eldridge: hot water.

“I’m going to have a shower,” he said, looking quite content.

Roug is accompanying U.S. forces in Mosul. A special correspondent in the city contributed to this report.


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