On Sunday, millions of Iraqis, in spite of a lack of overall security, left their homes to vote in a historic election derided by politicians and observers alike. On the same day and in reply, insurgents led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — many of them loyal to the Iraqi wing of al Qaeda — killed 35 people in a bloody assault on both the polls and a tentative Iraqi freedom.
As some of the voters danced with joy, obviously overcome with emotion, others preferred to hide their faces in fear. Yet initial results were encouraging: Voters cast ballots in higher-than-expected numbers in Iraq’s first multi-party election in half a century. Samir Hassan, 32, who lost his leg in a car bomb blast last year, said as he lined up to vote in Baghdad: “I would have crawled here if I had to. I don’t want terrorists to kill other Iraqis like they tried to kill me.” But many polling stations were still empty in parts of Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland, the area worst hit by anti-coalition attacks and where the violence has been bloodiest.
As widely expected, voters formed long queues in predominantly Shi’ite areas and in the Kurdish north. Many sang, chanted and clapped; others said they had walked for miles. “This is a wedding for all Iraqis. I congratulate all Iraqis on their newfound freedom,” said Jaida Hamza, dressed in a black Islamic robe, in the Shi’ite shrine city of Najaf. Iraq’s 60 percent-majority Shi’ites, marginalized for decades under Saddam, had been expected to dominate the polls. Kurds, who make up nearly a fifth of Iraqis but have traditionally remained the country’s most persecuted group, want a result that enables them to enshrine their autonomous rule in the north, a step that now appears to be tantalizingly close.
Officials of the current interim Iraqi administration were ever willing to put an optimistic spin on events despite the violence. Casting his vote in Baghdad’s heavily fortified and nearly impenetrable Green Zone, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi urged his countrymen to face down the insurgents. “This is a historic moment for Iraq,” he said. “A day when Iraqis can hold their heads high because they are challenging the terrorists and starting to write their future with their own hands.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was no less ebullient: “What we’re seeing here is the emergence of an Iraqi voice for freedom.”
Yet throughout the day, against the background of voting, militants launched a steady stream of attacks to try to jeopardize the polls. They struck mainly in Baghdad, rocking the capital with nine suicide blasts in quick succession. The Iraqi wing of al Qaeda continued to claim responsibility for the violence: In recent days, the group has declared war on the election, vowing to kill any “infidel” who voted.
The violence wasn’t unique to Iraq alone — expatriate groups living abroad have also, in recent weeks, seen a rekindling of tensions not seen since they initially left Iraq to escape Baath party rule. In Britain, where 30,961 of the nearly 250,000 Iraqi expatriates have registered to vote, the manager of Oldham Athletic football club was attacked on Sunday after he was caught up in a skirmish outside a polling station for the Iraq election. Manager Brian Talbot was driving past the polling station in Manchester on his way to Oldham’s FA Cup match against Bolton as fighting broke out between rival groups of Iraqis. After Talbot’s car accidentally struck one of the men, a mob of more than 20 then surrounded his vehicle, smashing its windows and assaulting the manager.
Back in Iraq, election monitors indicated that the final turnout was a little more than 60 percent of all registered voters. However, election commission spokesman Farid Ayar acknowledged, “the numbers are only guessing.” Any lower figure would prove an embarrassment for Iraq’s interim government, which has grappled with the concept of democratic legitimacy ever since the postwar deterioration in security. The government had initially set a target of at least 50 percent of Iraq’s 13 million registered voters as the barometer of success, but recently admitted that that was an optimistic outlook and that, in fact, many Iraqis would be too fearful to make the journey to their voting booths.
Officials expect to announce preliminary results in six to seven days and final results in about 10 days. The legitimacy of any new Iraqi government is still open to question, given that large numbers of international monitors mostly stayed away for fear of being kidnapped. Iraq’s first election in more than half a century, then, remains impossible to assess in terms of fairness or accuracy.
Confirmation of a low Sunni turnout would also undoubtedly damage the credibility of the election. Several parties from Iraq’s 20 percent Sunni minority boycotted elections, arguing that the insurgency in their areas, wedded to the presence of more than 150,000 U.S.-led troops, made a fair vote impossible.
For American troops currently occupying the country, a fair and swift resolution to the election is vital. There are well-grounded fears that instead of quelling the spiraling anti-U.S. revolt, the vote could further foment sectarian attacks by further alienating Sunnis, delaying any withdrawal of American-led forces from the country.
In the end, the election looks set to prove more evidence of the niggling and uncomfortable reality of Iraqi demographics — namely the informal creation of a three-state country where regions enjoy near-perfect autonomy but with some centralized ties to a government in Baghdad. This isn’t quite the brand of democracy the White House predicted when it went to war in 2003. But as the British learned long ago, Iraq is hardly a predictable country.