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Millions of Iraqis defy insurgent threats to vote in elections

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Sunday was a rare day of jubilation in this war-weary nation. A surprise majority of Iraqis cast ballots in their first independent elections in half a century, voting for democracy and defying the insurgency that tried to silence them with a barrage of attacks that killed at least 44 people.

At first cowed by the gunfire and explosions, hundreds, then thousands, and finally millions of Iraqis cast ballots for a new national assembly, the first elected body since the U.S.-led invasion overthrew Saddam Hussein nearly two years ago.

The 275-member assembly will choose the heads of Iraq's new government and oversee the drafting of a new constitution. How effectively it performs those duties will help determine whether Sunday's election was a decisive turn toward democracy in a nation and a region that have known little of it, or the prelude to renewed sectarian strife, or even civil war.

Not even preliminary results of the vote were available late Sunday night, and two factors—the makeup of the new assembly and the turnout of Sunni Muslims—will play a big role in determining how large a role Islam plays in the new government and whether the Sunni minority accepts it as legitimate.

On Sunday, however, President Bush hailed a victory for his Iraq policy, and Iraqis basked in a freedom that most of them had never before known. Voters danced in the streets and let out shrill cries of joy. They wiped away tears and hugged their children. They risked death and celebrated with chocolates.

In the Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah, where a U.S. offensive drove out the insurgents in November, hundreds of residents lined up at three polling stations that were little more than large tents ringed by concertina wire. Election officials ran out of ballot boxes by midday.

"I prayed, I kissed my daughters and I came to work," said Talib Ibrahim, a school principal who supervised a polling center in Baghdad. "When I got dressed today, it was as if I were going to a wedding. This is the moment I've been waiting decades for."

Iraqis momentarily set aside their deep divisions and turned out in numbers that far surpassed predictions and cut across ethnic and sectarian lines. The interim Iraqi government, religious leaders and the Bush administration all hailed the historic vote, though they were careful not to paint it as a cure-all for a nation that remains violent, impoverished and unstable.

"It's the first time Iraqis have been able to decide their fate and destiny, and to challenge the terrorist forces," said interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi after he voted inside the heavily fortified compound known as the Green Zone. "This is a good start for democracy, the rule of law and the stability of Iraq and the whole region."

The ticket led by Allawi, a secular Shiite with American backing, is expected to finish second to the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of mostly conservative Shiite candidates who have the tacit support of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, Iraq's highest-ranking cleric. The assembly seats will be divvied up according to the number of votes received by the 84 political slates and 27 independent candidates. It could take more than a week to declare the winners.

As expected, the elections were most successful in Shiite Muslim areas, where clerics had declared voting a religious obligation that will bring self-determination to Iraq's long-suffering majority. Yet even the Sunnis, largely written off as unwilling or unable to vote, lined up outside polling places in defiance of insurgent threats and prominent clerics who'd called for a boycott.

Farid Ayar of Iraq's Independent Electoral Commission guessed that as many as 8 million people—some 57 percent of Iraq's 14 million registered voters—might have voted. He said that figure included Anbar and Nineveh provinces, largely Sunni areas where the insurgency has been strongest.

Nevertheless, some influential Sunni clerics reiterated their opposition to elections as long as more than 140,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq. For groups such as the Muslim Scholars Association, which claims to represent 3,000 Sunni mosques, Sunday's landmark vote had no credibility, despite the turnout.

"Even if the winners are Sunni, the association will appeal the results," said Sheik Hassan al Nuaimi, a Muslim Scholars spokesman. "There will be no fair and honest elections until the occupiers leave Iraq or set a timetable for their departure."

Voters had to fingerprint their ballots as a safeguard against fraud, and across Iraq, a purple-stained index finger was a mark of pride on Sunday. Many Iraqis took advantage of an unusually warm January day to make the trip to the polls a family outing. Parents pushed strollers, teenagers assisted elderly grandparents and educated Iraqis explained the ballot to their illiterate neighbors.

A few Iraqis were somber and fearful. They darted into polling centers, voted and headed straight home.

Under the watch of rooftop snipers, voters were patted down for weapons and contraband that ranged from ballpoint pens to cell phones. Even at polling places hit by mortar rounds, workers quickly swept up broken glass, checked for wounded voters and promptly got back to business.

A look at how the voting went around the country:

_Baghdad: Gunfire crackled and booms sounded in the distance, but residents still ventured out to vote. At three polling places visited by Knight Ridder reporters, there was tight security and a festive atmosphere. Iraqi women trilled with joy, a tradition usually reserved for weddings.

In some Sunni areas, voting lagged for long stretches, and police fired warning shots at suspicious men who appeared to be taking notes on voters, witnesses said.

"This process needs patience, with open minds and tough hearts," said Asaad Hassan, who carried a banner that read "Yes to elections, no to terrorism." "I know this will cost some lives, but that's the normal tax for freedom in Iraq."

_Sadr City: A mortar struck near a polling center in the capital's Shiite slum of 3 million, killing three people and wounding four. Still, voting was brisk throughout the day, with voters lining up before sunrise for the polls to open at 7 a.m.

Sadr City, whose nickname in Arabic means "revolution," is known as the base of rebel Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who never publicly supported elections. Few of his constituents appeared to share his stance.

"What alternative is there to elections?" asked Salam Saddam, a 36-year-old tea vendor. "It's not perfect, but it might change the reality we're living."

_ The Shiite south: So many voters turned out in the southern Shiite holy city of Najaf that government-provided buses overfilled, forcing local police to let residents hop onto their flatbed trucks. Though many feared that the Shiite nerve center would be a target for Sunni insurgents, election day came and went without major incident.

Even before the polling centers closed at 5 p.m. local time, celebratory gunshots rang out and music blared through the streets. Among those who voted in Najaf was Haider Mohammed Baqr al Hakim, whose father, a beloved ayatollah, was killed along with dozens of others in a car bombing outside the sacred Imam Ali shrine in August 2003.

"The success of the election is the best celebration we could have," the younger Hakim said.

_The Kurdish north: Little or no violence was reported across the Kurdish north, where voters also cast ballots for leaders of their semi-autonomous northern region. In Sulaimaniya, the cultural capital of what's known as Kurdistan, huge crowds had massed by mid-morning.

Kurds, who mainly belong to two rival factions, united in hopes of forming a bloc that will protect their rights in the new assembly. Some groups set up unofficial booths outside polling places where voters signed a petition for an independent Kurdish state, an unwelcome prospect for Iraq's Arab majority.

"I voted for the Kurdish lists because I'm a Kurd," said Jawhar Mohammed, a carpenter. "And I wish there was another ballot to vote for the independent country of Kurdistan."

_The Sunni west: Although turnout was much higher than expected in the violent western Sunni territories, there were still large pockets where few voted. In the volatile cities of Mosul and Samarra, for example, there were reports that few election workers or voters showed up at the polls.

One of the biggest surprises was Fallujah, where fears of insurgent attacks kept the candidates—but not the voters—at bay.

"I wanted to see for myself the credibility of these elections," said Abdul Kareem Zaidi, a pharmacist. "In Fallujah, we didn't see platforms, we didn't meet candidates, but we still had to vote. Iraq has to have a government chosen by us."

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(Knight Ridder correspondent Nancy A. Youssef and special correspondents Huda Ahmed, Mohammed al Awsy, Yasser Salihee, Shatha al Awsy, Omar Jassim, Ahmed Mukhtar, Baiz Agha, and a correspondent who isn't named for security reasons contributed to this report.

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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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