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Iraq election: Security forces vote early, smiling and proud

Though several more bombs underscored the persistent insurgent threat to the Iraq election, the attitude among security forces – many of whom couldn't safely wear their uniform in public three years ago – was light-hearted.

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"It's the fault of the Ministries of Interior and Defense for not providing us with the added names of military personnel and police. They didn't provide all the names for the special vote," said Qassim al Aboudi, a senior official on Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission, the body that's supervising the elections

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Elsewhere, voting went mostly smoothly and with a festive air.

Now, security forces wear uniforms with pride

In Baghdad's market district of Kadhemiya, a group of Iraqi soldiers ate falafel sandwiches and proudly displayed ink-stained fingers that marked them as voters. They also reflected on how much stronger the military is as an institution now that they're more professional and battle-tested and they operate under an Iraqi command that no longer answers to Americans.

When they were recruits about three years ago, some of the soldiers recalled, it was still too dangerous for them to wear their uniforms while they were off-duty for fear that insurgents would target them as "collaborators" with the US military. Because of the complicity of some renegade security forces in sectarian mass killings, ordinary Iraqis also looked at them as potential attackers rather than protectors.

"Before, we didn't feel safe standing at our checkpoints and the people didn't feel safe going through them, wondering who it really was checking them," said Riyadh Hassan, a young soldier from Diyala, who's stationed in Baghdad. "Now we wear our uniforms proudly and walk in the streets."

Before the 19-year-old got too carried away with the sentimentality, his comrades teased him that he was too young to remember the bad old days. "You still had your bottle!" one teased. "He's a baby!" joked another.

Excitement over the election was also evident among groups of police, who remain the most troubled of Iraq's security forces because of the infiltration of Shiite militias, although there's no disputing that today's forces are far more disciplined than in recent years.

A raucous group of emergency police, who spend perilous five-hour shifts at checkpoints and are among the first responders to attacks, waited to vote on a curb outside a polling station in Baghdad. Before answering questions about elections, they dug their black berets from pockets to complete their uniforms.

"We have to look professional," said Haider Ali Farajallah of Baghdad's Sadr City district, with a mock air of officiousness.

The officers said their minds were made up about favorite candidates, though there was fierce debate over who was best to run the next government. Poking fun at their own disagreements, when they were asked whether they were happy about election day, one cracked, "Wait a minute. Let us debate that."

Sectarianism was the only taboo topic. Unlike the parliamentary election of 2005, when candidates ran on sectarian platforms that only worsened relations between Sunnis and Shiites, there was a sense that voters have grown weary of such rhetoric.

"We've left our families to protect our country, and we're in this together," said officer Ammar Qassim, a Shiite who pretended to kiss a Sunni comrade. "See? This gentleman is from Fallujah. And this gentleman is from Sadr City. We are brothers."

McClatchy special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy in Baghdad, Jamal Naji in Fallujah and an Iraqi reporter in Baqouba who can't be named for security reasons contributed to this article.