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Polls Stand Empty in Sunni Stronghold

Times Staff Writer

Fear of insurgent attacks and a call by Sunni Muslim clerics to boycott the elections prevailed Sunday in the turbulent Al Anbar province as most voters stayed at home despite U.S. promises to protect those who showed up to cast ballots.

Unofficial figures from the province showed that only about 17,000 of as many as 250,000 eligible voters in Al Anbar participated in the first national election since a U.S.-led coalition deposed Saddam Hussein. The mostly Sunni province is home to the restive cities of Ramadi and Fallouja.

“Most people were afraid to vote,” said Shakir Ali Jawad, an election official at Polling Place No. 1 in Ramadi, the provincial capital.

But there were other reasons. A professor who lived only a block from a polling place said he did not plan to vote because the Shiite Muslim majority would make sure that politicians favoring Iran were elected.

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“Iraq will become part of Iran after this,” he said. “I want no part of it.”

Mohammed Hamadi, a laborer, said that voting was against the Koran, particularly since it treated female voters as equals. “It is wrong to do this,” he said, nodding toward the polling place at an elementary school.

Unofficial figures showed that 1,700 people voted in Ramadi, a city of nearly 400,000 residents; 8,000 in Fallouja, half the size of Ramadi; and about 5,000 in neighboring Nassar Wa Alsalaam, a mostly agricultural community. The remaining votes came from smaller towns in the vast province, which stretches from west of Baghdad to the border with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

In Fallouja, where the United States mounted an offensive in November to wrest control from insurgents, polling places were set up at centers that distribute food, water and cash payments to residents whose homes were devastated by the offensive.

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In Ramadi, the locations were kept secret until days before the election.

U.S. officials had stated that a successful election in Ramadi was crucial to the bid by an Iraqi government to gain credibility.

Despite the low turnout, U.S. officials declared the election a success, citing the lack of major violence. In Ramadi, a roadside bomb exploded beneath an Army tank, a rocket-propelled grenade hit a Marine Humvee, and a missile fired at the school housing Polling Place No. 1 landed harmlessly. No U.S. casualties were reported, but one Marine was slain around 3:30 a.m. in Al Anbar, the military said, without providing more details.

“The citizens of Al Anbar were afforded the opportunity to vote in a safe and secure environment,” said Maj. Gen. Richard F. Natonski, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division.

“Every citizen was able to make a choice, either to participate or not to participate,” he said. “That decision, in itself, is a demonstration of freedom and democracy.”

Lt. Col. Randy Newman, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Regiment, 1st Marine Division, said that even an election with a sparse turnout was a step toward establishing democracy.

“This is something that is going to be gained by inches, not yards,” Newman said after visiting his troops guarding Polling Place No. 1.

In the days before the election, insurgents circulated fliers warning residents not to vote and help the “infidels.” The same message was spray-painted on walls.

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On Saturday, insurgents reportedly telephoned potential voters, warning them to stay at home.

“A man can only take so much fear,” said Mohammed Jolan, a businessman. “The Americans don’t understand this. They cannot protect us forever.”

At day’s end, when election workers were being escorted by Marines to the safety of a Marine compound, the jubilant attitude among them belied the low turnout.

“This has been a free election for a free country,” said worker Falih Swadi Henoon, wearing a Los Angeles Raiders jacket.

Marines in recent weeks detained dozens of suspected insurgents and captured numerous caches of weapons and explosives, some in close proximity to polling places. Marines said they thought that some of the caches had been placed recently in preparation for an attack.

“We’ve taken so many people, so many weapons, off the streets, that it would have to be severely crippling,” said Capt. Ed Rapisarda, 33, of Vacaville, Calif., commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion’s Fox Company.

By agreement with the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, the Marines did not enter the school polling place because they didn’t want to give credibility to Sunni clerics’ claim that the election was merely a way to ensure that the government would be run by “American puppets.” So strict was the arms-length protocol that Marines who set up the cardboard voting booths Saturday were careful not to touch the boxes of ballots.

Still, Marine snipers were on rooftops. Concertina wire blocked off street access to the site to thwart car bombs. Squads of Marines waited in homes near the school, ready to respond to any attacks.

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By midday it was apparent that the Sunni population was staying away from the polls.

Two female U.S. soldiers, assigned to search female voters, were told to return to the nearby house where they had been billeted. Bepo, a German shepherd dog trained to sniff explosives, had no one to sniff.

Iraqi commandos lounged in front of the school, smoking and chatting and slinging around their U.S.-issued AK-47s. Some wore ski masks for anonymity.

One said that if his picture was taken, followers of insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi would cut his throat. The commandos were assigned to guard polling places after the entire 1,000-man Iraqi police force in Ramadi stopped coming to work because of threats.

Children who had filled the nearby streets were largely absent, kept indoors by their parents. The only sound was the buzz of a U.S. unmanned surveillance plane looking for insurgents.

“For people who say they want their country back, they sure aren’t taking the initiative,” said Cpl. Francisco Ortega, 21, of Hanford, Calif.

Gunnery Sgt. Brian Robinson, 36, of Cleveland, a liaison to the Iraqi poll workers, said the election had “sown some good seeds. It’s just going to take time, a long time.”

Perry is traveling with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Regiment, 1st Marine Division, Fox Company, in Ramadi.


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