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Shiite city finds its voice after years of repression

NAJAF, Iraq—Near the tomb of Sayed Mohammed Bakr al Hakim, the man who co-founded Iraq's political opposition movement, his widow and son with one simple act turned the work that cost Hakim his life into a political triumph.

They voted.

Sunday's election was significant for all of Iraq, but in this Shiite Muslim holy city, it was the end of living as oppressed rebels. Their votes would put Iraq's Shiite majority in power and perhaps make Najaf the most influential city in Iraq.

Residents of Najaf equated Sunday's vote with the decision 1,400 years ago to name Imam Ali the Prophet Mohammed's successor, creating the Shiite sect. Residents celebrated all day Sunday, and even before the last ballot was cast, they fired celebratory gunfire and sang openly.

Police said there was no violence at any of the 235 polling places in the city.

Around 8 a.m., the lines of voters parted as Hakim's son and widow walked into a classroom at the Women's Teachers Institute on Bareed Street. The Hakims grabbed their ballots, stood behind a booth and picked a slate led by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq party, which Hakim founded while he was exiled in Iran.

The voters who followed them did the same. Many stood in the booth for several minutes, studying their ballots. They stared at their right index finger after an election worker dipped it in ink to confirm that they'd voted.

Then they meticulously folded their ballots, and some paused before dropping the precious papers in the ballot box. Into the evening, election workers counted the ballots, sometimes by candlelight because of faltering electricity.

Hakim's son, Sayed Haider Mohammed Bakr al Hakim said he wished that his father, who was assassinated by a car bomb in 2003, could have watched.

"For the first time in my life, I participated in an election," the younger Hakim said. "I feel joy and happiness to build an Iraq that respects freedom, if this party wins or not."

Azzet Mouad al Din, Mohammed Bakr al Hakim's widow, said her husband's political goals had been fulfilled.

"The most important is that we have a constitution that would honor our martyrs," she said, looking at the purple ink at her finger. "I will keep it as long as possible."

Another Shiite religious leader, Ali al Ahmed a Waelly, said he cried when he realized during breakfast that he was about to vote. After he did, he said: "I felt like a part of my body went into the box. I feel every Iraqi should feel a part of his body was in that box."

Residents helped one another vote. A woman led her blind father to the booth; sons held up their elderly parents; and election workers read the 111 choices on the ballot to illiterate voters.

Women looked befuddled when the election workers handed them ballots at the Musab bin Omair Wanedhal School, a boys' elementary school.

One woman said to the poll worker: "I don't know. You tell me" who to vote for.

The worker declined and began reading her the names on the ballot.

Some voters told poll workers to stop reading when they heard the word Islam in a slate's name, said election worker Ahmed Yehdi Mehdi, 23, of Najaf.

In Najaf, residents said they were choosing between the United Iraqi Alliance, led by Hakim's Shiite party, and the Iraqi List, U.S.-backed interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's secular slate, and how they voted could help determine what role Islam plays in the new government.

Not everything went smoothly.

Many voters were sent away because their names weren't registered or the name on the register appeared differently on their identification cards. Others were confused about the rules.

Many polling centers didn't have monitors sitting in the polling centers for several minutes. At the Musab bin Omair Wanedhal School, where there were 25 booths, monitor Hussein Ali Abed, 35, said he felt overwhelmed when he was left alone at the center.

"They should put five monitors in the center," he said.

Voter Fatma Mohamed Jawad, 32, a student at the Kufa University, said she was worried by the lack of information about the candidates. Most candidates didn't identify themselves publicly, fearing retaliation by insurgents who vowed but failed to derail the elections.

"I only know about five names from the United Iraqi Alliance. But what about the rest of them?" Jawad asked. "Shall I put my trust in those five candidates I know?

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-ELECTIONS

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