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Insurgents fail to derail Iraqi election

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's first democratic elections in 50 years were marred by 10 suicide bombers, 44 people reported killed and untold numbers of mortar shells that rained down on polling sites and the nation's government center.

The elections were, in other words, a great success.

Because the death toll fell far short of what many had feared, the voting was a clear political victory for U.S. and Iraqi security forces. It was unclear, however, whether the insurgents were foiled by Iraqi security forces and by the 150,000 U.S. troops conducting aggressive operations or whether most of them took the day off to wait for better times, places and targets.

"The streets of Baghdad were not filled with blood as mentioned by the terrorist groups," said Farid Ayar, an official with the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq.

Ayar stopped short of naming Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist who's claimed responsibility for numerous bombings, assassinations and beheadings across Iraq.

Like many others in Iraq, Ayar seemed to be hedging his bets: The elections were a political win for the interim Iraqi government and the American administration that backs it, but few Iraqis or Americans were prepared to declare the insurgency defeated.

Thaer al Naqib, a spokesman for interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, was less reserved.

"Today the terrorists lost the war," he said. "It is a historic victory for Iraqis."

A senior American military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the day was more check than checkmate.

"I would say that effectively the insurgency just lost ... maybe not the war, but the first major battle," he said "It's not over. Peace is not breaking out tomorrow."

While the insurgents failed to derail the elections, they succeeded in dictating how the voting was conducted. No civilian cars were allowed on the streets because of the hundreds, if not thousands, of Iraqis killed by car bombers in the past year. Top Iraqi officials, guarded by phalanxes of Western security contractors, cast their votes in a compound guarded by tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and American soldiers.


There's still deep-rooted worry that the vote could spark more violence between a now-disenfranchised Sunni Muslim minority and the long-oppressed Shiite majority that's almost certain to dominate the results.

Polling centers in the dangerous Sunni towns south of Baghdad, Mahmudiyah and Latafiyah, were closed until early afternoon because of security concerns, according to election officials. In Fallujah, to the west, the same reason kept 100 of a planned 140 sites closed all day. Insurgents attacked polling stations in Baqubah, another Sunni hotspot, at least 30 times during a 24-hour period, though most of the attacks didn't inflict any casualties.

Iraqi security forces, however, cut other potential attacks off at the pass by tightly controlling the areas around the polling stations, albeit with ample help from American military officials and U.S. troops who remained largely out of sight, if not out of mind.

By the end of the day, nine insurgents wearing suicide belts and a car bomber, along with mortar and other attacks, killed more than 40 people. In a country where coordinated attacks have killed more than 140 people in one day, it was an acceptable number.

"Any death is one too many, but when you look across the board this is phenomenally light," the U.S. military official said.

Mohammed Watan, a voter in the Shiite slum of Sadr City, said the day's message was clear.

"Whoever didn't show up supports violence and doesn't want peace for this nation," he said.


(Knight Ridder special correspondent Ahmed Mukhtar contributed to this report.)


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