A SHIITE NEIGHBORHOOD
Firas Khudair, 27, had just left a polling center in Baghdad's heavily Shiite neighborhood of Kadhemiya when a mortar round exploded in a nearby palm grove. No one was injured, but the polling center's glass shattered and voters panicked.
Within 30 minutes, Khudair said, the glass was swept up and nervous Iraqis once again lined up to vote. He said he was surprised by the turnout, given the insurgency's threats.
"There were fliers stuck on the walls and scattered on the streets, warning people not to vote," Khudair said. "It was still quiet, and no one dared go out until police on patrol started telling people to go out and participate. They told them the streets were safe."
_Knight Ridder special correspondent Shatha al Awsy
ISLAM OR SECULARISM?
Many voters said they were undecided down to the moment when they filled out their ballots. For Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, the choice boiled down to interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's slate for secular democracy or list No. 169, blessed by conservative Shiite clerics who've promised self-determination for their long-suffering sect.
"I didn't decide until the last second, when I held a pen in my hand at the polling station," said Hassan Khalaf, 40, of Baghdad. "Something made me choose 169."
Across Iraq, there were stories of husbands and wives arguing over candidates, and young Iraqis voting secular against their conservative parents' wishes.
Ali Abdul Hussein, a 78-year-old attorney in Baghdad, voted for the mostly Shiite ticket because the winners will write a constitution and he didn't "want a government that has the legitimacy to fight religion."
Not so for Jameela Abbas, 70, who broke into a wide, toothless grin as she confessed a secret that would win disapproval in her Shiite enclave:
"I voted for Allawi," she said, eyes twinkling. "And I chose him myself."
_Hannah Allam and Knight Ridder special correspondent Shatha al Awsy
Wathha Hussein, 75, can't read or write. Her son, 53-year-old Yahya Mohamed, can't hear or speak. Yet together, they made their way to a polling center in Baghdad and confounded election monitors by huddling together in a single cardboard station, pantomiming to each other which candidates to choose.
Just this once, the ever-vigilant monitors pretended not to see a minor infraction that gave a mother and her son a voice in their government.
THE BIG SHOTS
The three men walked into the VIP voting poll set up in the "Green Zone," a warren of Iraqi and American political offices hidden behind walls, concertina wire, tanks and many, many men with guns.
They came to vote for the future of Iraq, and though all three were careful to avoid unpleasant words, much about them suggested the underlying struggle for the direction of a nation.
First came Ghazi al Yawer, the charismatic interim Iraqi president. A Sunni Muslim whose tribe includes Shiites, he wore his traditional white tribal robe with bright gold trim. He held a small Iraqi flag handed to him by an aide.
His wife, Nasreen Berwari, was at his side in a canary yellow suit. She's either his second or his third wife—Islam allows men to have more than one wife—depending on who's talking. She's also the Harvard-educated interim minister of public works and, like her husband, a technocrat who speaks about the importance of an inclusive society.
Al Yawer stopped every step or two to shake a hand. He wagged his purple stained finger at the crowd of onlookers and let out a laugh from deep in his belly.
Then Abdul Aziz al Hakim walked in silently, wearing a black turban denoting his lineage to the prophet Mohammad. An entourage followed behind his plain brown robe. A woman identified as his daughter was at his side, wearing a black veil that covered her from head to toe and hid her face behind a gauzy veil.
Al Hakim spoke, with a stern face, of the future of Iraq, and he spoke of Shiite "martyrs."
Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi arrived last, with a phalanx of Western security guards toting machine guns and pushing journalists out of the way. Allawi wore khaki pants, a crisp shirt unbuttoned at the collar and a navy blazer, looking like a country club member on his way to dinner.
A self-styled tough guy whose organization was once backed by the CIA, he told the journalists that the day's elections were a great achievement for the country and a setback for the insurgents.
Then he walked off, gunmen in tow.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.