Iraqis crowd the polls

Despite insurgent attacks, initial reports of strong turnout in Iraq's landmark vote lend air of legitimacy.

Defying fears of suicide bombings, mortar attacks, and insurgent threats to kill every voter, Iraqis Sunday lined up in greater numbers than expected to cast ballots in historic elections.

Despite a string of violent attacks that fell short of insurgent warnings, Iraqis took a first step toward determining their future, a democratic result that - however imperfect and rudimentary - is likely to reverberate across the Middle East.

The vote will also hand the reins of power in Iraq to the majority Shiite Muslims, the election's most enthusiastic supporters, for the first time since modern Iraq was created in 1920.

The moment could not have been more surreal. Here in the capital, where security - and election day attacks - were concentrated, Iraqi voters turned a long-awaited day of reckoning into a collective sigh of relief after voting in an environment of de facto martial law.

With private vehicles banned to prevent car bombs, Iraqis took over the streets of Baghdad, playing soccer and going for walks - even those in wheelchairs were pushed along - as threats of catastrophic attacks failed to materialize.

"Why should I be afraid?" asked Arifa Abed Mohamed, an elderly woman in a black abaya, who was first to vote at dawn on one Baghdad polling station. "I am afraid only from God."

She was not alone. Iraq's electoral commission estimated that nationwide turnout could reach more than 60 percent - higher than the figure of 50 percent officials had touted as a yardstick of success.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi declared the vote "the first time the Iraqis will determine their destiny." Indeed, some voters brought bundled-up babies and entire families to take part.

By nightfall, violent attacks in the capital had left 27 dead and more than 50 wounded.

Late in the afternoon, four people with ink-stained fingers - proof that they had voted - were reportedly killed by grenades along Haifa Street, a bastion of insurgents that have vowed to "wash the streets of Baghdad with the voters' blood."

Still, insurgent violence was less than predicted - comparable in Baghdad, in fact, to carnage that can be wrought by car bombs. Nationwide, 35 people are known to have died in attacks, along with nine suicide bombers - a result that US and Iraqi officers say is galvanizing Iraq's budding security forces.

"We want to live," cried Vian Othman, emerging from the polling station with tears streaming down her face. The regime of Saddam Hussein killed her father in the 1970s. Voting, she said, was her revenge.

"Freedom and happiness and victory," sobs Ms. Othman, describing her emotions at the ballot box. "We were a little bit afraid [before coming], but we put courage in our hearts."

US and Iraqi forces endeavored to underpin that courage with unprecedented security measures. Voters were searched multiple times at each station; vehicles were kept far back; US jet fighters streaked through the sky, while helicopters buzzed above the city.

It was the first time that both the Iraqi police and Iraqi National Guard (ING) forces - regular targets of insurgent killings - have engaged in a nationwide operation, and worked so closely together.

"Now our confidence in our troops is much stronger," says an ING major, who asked not to be named.

Already there has been a major change in public attitudes, he says, citing an incident on the eve of voting, in which he says citizens threw candies at his troops.

"We give our people hope that we will defend them, and be ready all the time to serve them," the major says.

His words are echoed by the experience of US Army Col. Mike Murray, who says Iraqi forces have finally begun to grow into an election-day role that would have been impossible eight months ago.

"This can be a turning point for them," says Colonel Murray, from Kenton, Ohio. "It's going to be a boost for Iraqi forces, that they are pulling it off."

Lyrical predawn prayers broadcast Sunday from mosque minarets washed over a capital in waiting. Some voters uttered prayers as they ran a risk by taking their nation's first step toward democracy.

Within an hour, the trickle of voters at one station in the middle-class neighborhood of Karada turned into a stream, which - as a volley of mortar blasts sounded in the distance, to the southwest - turned into a steady flow.

While voters crowded to vote in Shiite areas such as the poor suburb of Sadr City, insurgent- and Sunni-dominated cities to the north and west, like Fallujah and Ramadi - where disgust at the vote runs deepest, and intimidation from extremist is most persuasive - reported some near-empty polling stations.

Turnout for the Sunni minority, which held power for decades under Saddam Hussein at the expense of the Shiite majority and minority Kurds - will shape the vote's legitimacy, analysts say.

Saying conditions weren't right, hard-line Sunni clerics declared a boycott of the election. Refugees from the Sunni city of Fallujah, the insurgent stronghold invaded and wrecked by US troops hunting guerrillas last November, remain bitter.

After decades of tasting power, they are doubly Iraq's biggest losers: part of a Sunni minority losing influence, and from a city that remains largely uninhabitable.

"Fallujans have one word about this election: 'No,'" says a sheikh who runs the Al-Mustafa mosque in Baghdad. "We will not participate in this election, because we don't believe America wants to give anyone anything."

While Washington and the interim Iraqi government said it timed the assault to allow elections to be held there, electrician Mizher al-Jumaili - who returned to his Fallujah house for the first time last week to find it destroyed by a tank shell and fire - says the opposite is true.

"This was the reason Fallujah was attacked, to prevent it from voting," says Mr. Jumaili, who refuses to vote, because most candidates are "too close" to Americans. "The government wanted to marginalize Fallujah," he asserts.

Determined not to be marginalized, a woman who gave her name only as Umm Ali, the mother of Ali, said she moved for three days out of Doura, a district on Baghdad's southern edge thick with insurgents, so she could vote in relative safety.

"I came here to relatives, because in Doura there are many [insurgent] operations," says Umm Ali, in broken English. "Everyone in my neighborhood had left to vote. I have no feeling of fear - Allah has won."

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