Iraqis across large parts of the country defied bomb blasts and the threat of more attacks to vote in the Iraq election, in what appeared to be a sweeping desire for change after four years of sectarian division and a lack of basic services.
In Baghdad, what some security officials described as the first of a rain of rockets was fired just before dawn in an effort to keep voters from the polls. Thirty-eight Iraqis were killed and almost 90 injured in the attacks in Baghdad, according to the interior ministry in what was considered to be a conservative estimate.
A United States military official said most of the explosions were small homemade bombs. The Iraqi Ministry of Defense said the attacks included six mortars. He said Iraqi security forces defused 54 bombs in Baghdad Sunday. Security sources said Iraqi and American forces disabled another 16 explosive devices on Saturday near polling sites.
Some of the polling stations emptied during the morning’s attacks, but after calls from several political leaders urging Iraqis not to lose the chance for their voices to be heard, voting seemed to pick up again in the afternoon.
“I think the bombing provoked people to vote,” said one Western official. The official, who had been at a polling site near one of the explosions, asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to be quoted by name.
In Najaf, voters show their determination
In Najaf, voters shrugged off a car bomb yesterday that killed at least three pilgrims near the the city’s holy shrine to cast their votes.
“It is the fate of our country and the future of our children that is being decided. This is something we have to do,” says Mohammad Hussein, a laborer. Mr Hussein placed his ballot in a clear plastic box and then dipped his finger into indelible purple ink to prove that he had voted. He also had his own two small sons dip their own fingers the ink to mark the historic occasion.
By midday about half of approximately 3,000 registered voters had cast their ballots before a lunchtime lull, officials at one polling station told a UN team providing support for the elections.
'Waiting for change'
“All of them are expecting and waiting for a change, that is the most important thing,” said Jerzy Skuratowicz, the deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, during a previous stop west of Baghdad in Anbar Province.
Unemployment is estimated at over 50 percent among young people in Anbar Province – a majority Sunni province that was the center of the insurgency early in the war.
In Anbar and other places, an Al Qaeda-affiliated group imposed a curfew on voting day to try to intimidate voters from going to the polls.
Mosques in Fallujah, however, broadcast appeals telling people it was their duty to go to vote.
In the village of Jabal on the outskirts of the provincial capital of Ramadi, a steady stream of families arrived at the polling site. Some came in on crutches.
One group of women said they had voted for the Iraqi Islamic Party in 2005 but this time were voting for Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who heads the Al Iraqiya Coalition and the main challenger to Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki.
Tired of sectarian politics
Sunni Arabs had widely boycotted the first elections for a transitional government in 2005, when, in Anbar Province, the turnout was less than 2 percent. Although they came out in greater numbers for parliamentary elections that year, they have had a disproportionately weak representation in the Shiite-dominated government. This election is seen as a chance to bring to power a more representative and more efficient government.
“We want to change our politics once and for all,” said Jumah Khalaf, an election official at the polling site. “The politicians we elect should not be sectarian – not ‘this man is from the south and this man is from the north and this one from Anbar’. No – we are all Iraqis.”