Defying bombers, Iraqi security forces vote en masse

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 4, 2010 

BAGHDAD — Shrapnel had flown into Ali al Tamimi's eyes, partially blinding him, and both of his legs were broken in several places.

Not even 24 hours after receiving the injuries in a suicide bombing northeast of Baghdad, however, Tamimi cast a ballot from his hospital bed, joining hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis who voted Thursday in an early round reserved for security forces, detainees and hospital patients who might not be able to make it to the polls for Sunday's parliamentary election.

"I challenge them. I will vote in spite of them!" Tamimi, the head of health services in Diyala province, said of the bombers. "This is our chance to elect a better future for Iraq."

The early voting highlighted three mainstays of an Iraqi Election Day: the resilience of voters, in this case the nation's beleaguered security forces; sectarian-laced allegations of electoral fraud; and the determination of militants to disrupt the process. Attacks near polling stations in Baghdad killed at least 12 people Thursday and wounded more than 45, authorities said.

The day belonged foremost to Iraqi police, military and other security forces, who are the nation's first defense now that U.S. forces have pulled out of major cities in preparation for a full withdrawal by the end of next year. Baghdad's streets were mostly empty due to a public holiday, allowing military trucks to deliver clapping, chanting Iraqi troops to vote at heavily guarded polling places.

A Katyusha rocket landed near a closed polling station in the Baghdad neighborhood of Hurriyah, killing five people and wounding 10, police said. Two suicide bombers wearing explosives vests struck in separate incidents in Baghdad: one in Mansour killed at least three people and wounded 25; another in Bab al Muatham killed four and wounded 10, according to police. Both attacks occurred outside polling stations where Iraqi security forces were voting.

In the Bab al Muatham attack, casualties could have been far higher were it not for the last deed of Iraqi army Capt. Faisal Shahad Jasim, who rushed the bomber and tackled him before he could enter the polling station, Iraqi state television reported. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki awarded Jasim a posthumous promotion of two ranks.

Security officials in the mostly Sunni Muslim western Anbar province complained that the names of thousands of police and military personnel were missing from polling stations or were registered at voting sites up to 250 miles away. The flap only solidified the doubts many Sunnis have about an electoral process that Shiite Muslims and Kurds are overseeing.

To avoid a controversy with sectarian undertones, Iraqi election officials announced that security forces who couldn't find their names on voter rolls would be allowed to cast provisional ballots. Voting hours also were extended in some areas as election officials scrambled to get the correct rolls.

"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.

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

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 U.S. 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, 19, a soldier from Diyala who's stationed in Baghdad. "Now we wear our uniforms proudly and walk in the streets."

Before he 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, 24, 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, 24, 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.

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