HUSAYBAH, IRAQ — This recent insurgent stronghold in Iraq's far west hadn't participated in Iraq's democratic transition until Thursday. Opening polling centers for the first parliamentary election or the constitutional referendum was impossible because of insurgent attacks.
But Thursday, Shatwa Fedhi Hasan and his neighbors arrived before the polls opened, determined to influence a process that has left them behind.
Standing in the chilly morning air, their determination to get to the polls first was based, like that of thousands of others in the mostly Sunni Arab Anbar Province, on a complex mix of anger, hope, fear, and religious conviction.
Lines at least 100 people deep lasted all day, and voting was so brisk that marines and Iraqi election workers were scrambling to create makeshift ballot boxes in the afternoon. The large turnout in Anbar led Iraq's election commission to extend voting by one hour, the Associated Press reported.
This town and two neighboring ones were mostly cleared of insurgents last month and now house several US Marine encampments.
But while many residents said they were glad for the relatively recent peace, most were voting for deeply religious Sunni Arab candidates with ties to the insurgency. These candidates have run on a platform of resistance to what they term occupation.
"We all want a religious man,'' Mr. Hasan says gravely as he pulls a pamphlet of Koranic verses from his pocket to illustrate why he supports the party of Sunni religious leader Adnan al-Dulaimi.
In a community that feels persecuted by the Iraqi government and its security forces run by the majority Shiites, many Sunnis are looking for a leader tough enough to protect them.
"We want only security and all the terrorists to be finished,'' says Umm Thafur, her face covered in Bedouin tattoos and engulfed by her abaya. "God willing everything will be better ... we want a strong leader who's truly Iraqi."
Marines went to pains to minimize their visibility, stationing Iraqi soldiers prominently at checkpoints and voting booths. "I want to keep the US presence within the inner cordon to a minimum,'' Lt. Paul Haagenson, from Minneapolis, Minn., told his platoon the night before the vote. "This is their show, this is their election."
But the realities in towns like Husaybah, which was controlled by insurgents just weeks ago, meant that voting had to be held in the confines of a Marine base.
But the US presence on election day seemed to matter little to voters, who are more concerned about their daily presence in the city, a strategy designed to insure that insurgents don't return.
"We need no [security forces] in the town. [If security forces go] outside town, very good,'' Hasan says.
Violence appeared to be light Thursday. Despite promises from major insurgent groups not to attack polling stations, a mortar shell killed one civilian near a voting site in the northern city of Tal Afar and a grenade killed a school guard near a polling place in Mosul.
Several bombs were found along major roads leading to polling stations in predominantly Sunni Arab neighborhoods and destroyed, the US military reported.
From a side street and behind a cement barrier meant to stop car bombs, Abu Latief, who didn't want to give his full name, watched the lines of voters swell throughout the morning. "The Iraqi Army is no problem, but the occupation forces are a problem,'' he said as an Iraqi soldier watched.
"After the election, God willing, there will be security, and the American forces will leave Iraq. This is very important to all the people, that the American forces leave. Because if they are here, the terrorists come."
• Associated Press material was used in this report.