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February 1, 2005

In Mosul, Many Pleasantly Surprised by Election

by Ferry Biedermann

MOSUL - Election day in Iraq's violence-prone, third-largest city Mosul ended as it began, with a spate of bomb attacks. But in between a fair number of people voted.

Iraqi and U.S. troops remained on high alert Monday after returning to their units. But authorities were looking back on a relatively successful vote.

Mosul, a Sunni-dominated city in the Kurdish north, has been one of the most violence-hit cities since U.S. forces drove militants out of Fallujah in November. The security forces had expected a difficult election day, and it was. But astonishingly to some, large numbers of voters turned up anyway to cast their ballots in this crucial first national election since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Iraqi forces presented the face of new Iraq at the polling stations. U.S. troops who provide the backbone of the security forces kept a low profile. But the moment the last voters had left the heavily fortified polling stations situated in dilapidated high schools, police stations, and post offices, U.S. forces resumed their role of big brother to the fledgling new Iraqi army.

At the Jana'in secondary school in the Hay al-Tahrir quarter, one of the city's 40 polling stations, U.S. soldiers in their box-like, heavily armored Stryker vehicles rolled in to escort the ballot boxes and apprehensive election officials to the vote counting center in Mosul. Safar Jamil, who headed the elections team at the site, came bounding out of the school's metal gates once the voting was done. "This was a great day," he said. Relief was written on his face, and it spoke in his voice. "So many people came to vote even though they were frightened." He paused and then gave voice to his own fears. "And no bombs went off here. It was a good day."

That was so at his polling station, but at many places, militants who oppose the Iraqi authorities and their American backers did what they could to disrupt the elections.

Early in the morning three billowing clouds of black smoke could be seen against the gray winter sky from Hay al-Tahrir. Explosions shook the city all day, providing a powerful argument for people not to go and vote. The explosions came either from attacks, or they were controlled explosions of discovered devices. In Hay al-Tahrir, a mainly Sunni Arab neighborhood with a large Kurdish presence, Sheikh Munir Khadr from the local mosque and his wife were the first to vote. This could have been a signal to the rest of the people.

In a show of respect to widespread concerns, his wife was not searched, just checked with a metal detector. And Khadr was not intimidated by the militants' threats. "Just look around you," he said, pointing at all the soldiers and special police forces that had secured the building. "Finally, something is being done about security."

Voting is a "national duty," said the Sunni sheikh. Like many other people on election day, he was hoping for one outcome to the vote above all others. "I hope that after this the city will be safer."

In Mosul as in many other parts of the country, people were asked to cast two ballots, one for the national parliament and one for the local authorities. In Kurdistan, people also voted for the autonomous region's own parliament.

Most voters in Mosul expect more from the national vote than from their local governor. "Our problems are too big to be solved here," a voter said. "We need the situation to improve in the whole country before things get better here."

People had traveled miles to vote at Hay al-Tahrir. Majid Saleh and his three brothers came from a village outside Mosul. They had to walk because all traffic was prohibited from two days before the voting until the day after.

The brothers belong to a Shia tribe, and like the Kurds who were oppressed by the Sunni minority under Saddam Hussein and before him, they were eager to vote and cement the changes in the country. Their spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has been a firm champion of the election.

"Al-Sistani worked very hard to have these elections," said Saleh. "So it was our duty to come and vote for a democratic, free, and above all united Iraq."

The Salehs were not from the district, but anybody could vote anywhere in Mosul. Polling stations did not have lists of voters because the city was considered too dangerous for a voter registration drive. All that was required was an Iraqi ID card.

"We match the picture on the card to the voter, and if it is the same person we let them vote," said Safar Jamil. Many of the cards carried faded or unclear pictures, and many were taken when the voters were much younger. Such matters were hardly obstacles.

Officials seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the elections. "We all suffered under Saddam Hussein," said one. "This is a new beginning."

All the election officials came from outside Mosul for security reasons, so that the militants would not mark them for their "cooperation with the Americans."

Of the 12 election officials, 11 were Christian and one was Yezidi (an old Kurdish religious group). It was an indication how difficult it was to get reliable people from among the local population who would not be intimidated by threats to them and their families.

Because of the danger, the officials received by Iraqi standards a very generous sum of $500 for five days' work.

As the election drew to a close, even the security forces relaxed a little. Some admitted they had been pleasantly surprised.. "I thought nobody would show up under these circumstances but they did," a lieutenant said. "This was a real election after all."

(Inter Press Service)

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