The Vote Must Go On

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Despite more than 150 attacks against coalition forces, more than 40 people being killed (including at least eight suicide bombers), and dozens wounded on election day here, thousands of voters across this city made their way to the polls on Sunday, some walking more than 20 kilometers without shoes, to vote in the country's first free election in more than 50 years.

"I voted from the bottom of my heart and for all my family. I am so happy," said 57-year-old Rafidah Fatheh Shaab, who voted in her neighborhood of Shula in northern Baghdad. "I was not afraid. Today I even skipped breakfast so I could pray for all Iraqis — and even Americans — to have freedom and prosperity."

Then she held up her hand to show a blue-stained finger, the official mark that she had voted. "It has been black in Iraq since 1963 and today the sun is shining," she said.

On Old Abu Ghraib Highway, a stream of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Iraqis flooded eastward, walking from the town of Abu Ghraib, whose own polls were closed, 20 kilometers east to polls in Hooriya and Ghazaliya. Many were dancing as they walked and chanted "God is great” and “God prays for Mohammed.” Very few of them had any water; one held a wrinkled copy of his voter registration form in his hands. One man had no shoes; another carried a pigeon — a dove of peace, he said.

"We are walking all these miles because we are tired of the old regime and we want freedom and democracy," said 40-year-old Ali Masen, who said that many of these men from the town of White Gold in Abu Ghraib had organized ahead of time to walk together to the polls. "Our older people are in the back. They are slower, but they are coming."

The image was in stark contrast to the first of eight suicide bombers who detonated shortly after 8 a.m. outside a polling station in western Baghdad. The bombers primarily detonated outside the security cordons of polling stations — one outside a barricaded hospital that looked like a polling station — and were thought to be foreign nationals. More than 40 people were killed and up to 75 wounded at the time of this reporting with the long evening hours still ahead.

Explosions resounded across Baghdad most of the day; the results of “improvised explosive devices,” mortar rounds, grenades and small arms fire, including rockets.

By late Sunday afternoon, there were roughly 150 attacks against coalition forces, civilians and security forces. Given the ongoing firefights erupting around Baghdad in the evening hours, that number is sure to climb. Also a British C-130 crashed northwest of Baghdad, possibly due to small arms fire. The number of casualties was unknown by early evening.

Military officials predicted the evening attacks would specifically target ballots before they were secured in an effort to make election results illegitimate, said Col. Mark Milley of the Second Brigade Combat team, 10th Mountain Division, which is helping coordinate logistics for the elections.

Despite the violence, voters streamed to the polls in relatively small but consistent numbers throughout the day, with a turnout of up to 90 percent in some Shiite neighborhoods, and about 40-50 percent in some Sunni areas in western Baghdad, Milley said. U.S. forces made up a third cordon during the election, giving logistical and protective support, while polling stations were guarded by Iraqi police forces and managed by Iraq's Independent Electoral Commission.

As predicted, Shiite turnout was much higher than for the minority Sunni population, as Shiites make up nearly 60 percent of the country's 26 million people. They were expected to gain a significant powerbase in this vote for a 275-member National Assembly. Sunnis make up 20 percent of Iraq's population and had been told by some of their leaders not to vote. Both the Iraq Islamic Party and the Association of Muslim Scholars threatened to boycott the election, claiming it could not be legitimate and remains a tactic to extend the U.S. occupation.

But many Sunnis disregarded the “fatwa,” or edict, seeing a vote as the only clear way out of the past.

"My father was a general in the Iraqi Army and this is the first time for Iraqis to taste freedom," said 25-year-old Dr. Zeena Hassam, who helped her 80-year-old father drop his ballot into the voting box. Hassem said she and her father paid no attention to calls for a boycott. The day is too important and the waiting was too long, she said. "It is the duty of every Iraqi to vote. We are Sunni, and my relatives and my friends, we all know it is our duty, and it is our honor."

The Sunni boycott, and especially the threats and terrorism, may have frightened off some voters, but others weren't fazed.

Aerial imagery apparently caught voters spitting on and kicking the remains of a suicide bomber as they entered their polling station. Other Iraqis waiting in line in Sadr City came under a mortar attack that hit a man in his leg. They helped the injured man then got back in line to vote, election officials reported.

"Of course we are afraid, but we must do this,” said Suna Sharif as she left a voting station with her son and husband. “We walked for two miles and my husband is sick. We have been preparing to vote for a long time and my son made sure we were here before polls closed.”

A ban on all car traffic encouraged people in some Shiite neighborhoods in northwest Baghdad to pour into the streets to visit and celebrate. Children played soccer and men talked on door stoops.

By nightfall, reports of ongoing attacks were still pouring into the central command station of western Baghdad. Focus was turned to protecting ballots and the days ahead, and helping police forces who were to continue securing polling sites through the night. The police chief took a moment from his organizing to show off his stained finger. An officer with the Iraqi National Guard joined him, holding his blue index finger in the air. They all took photos to remember the moment.

In the background the radio crackled out reports of more IEDs and small arms fire attacks, polling stations being breached and more wounded and killed.

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