BAGHDADâ€”Almost one hour since the polls opened here, I’ve only heard one faint boom, and it was far away. So far, so good, knock on wood. I’ll be heading out shortly after we’ve had our security guys make an assessment of the safety situation.
But one thing is different. Before, as a Westerner, I felt a bull’s-eye on me whenever I left compound. Today, I think the kidnapping threat is less (the insurgents have better things to do today) so everyone on the street is a target. This gives me a feeling of solidarity and responsibility. If the Iraqis can go out there and risk their lives in the lines to vote, then the least I can do is the same to cover them doing it.
More later today as things develop. Let’s hope the worries of violence prove overblown.
8:39:11 AM (All times local Baghdad time): We have our first suicide bombing outside a polling place in Mosul. No word yet on casualties. Explosions in the Green Zone, probably mortars. Police report a car bomb in west Baghdad, with some casualties.
9:34:37 AM So far, not as much violence as everybody feared. The question is why? Is the insurgency taking a pass on this one? (It’s possible. Our sources in the insurgency say the election will make no difference to them, so why expend a lot of energy?) Is the insurgency much weaker than previously thought? Or is the level of security sufficient to keep it in check? If that’s the case, then that is discouraging, too, because the measures that have kept today safe (so far) are truly draconian. No driving, dusk to dawn curfews, states of emergency. If that’s what it takes to provide security in Iraq, why erase one police state only to replace it with another?
9:43:33 AM Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi just voted, and didn’t even bother to put on a tie. Casual-vote Sunday?
10:40:11 AM Just got back from the local voting station in my ‘hood, Karada, which is a heavily Shi’a neighborhood. The polling took place in the Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim High School, named for the former leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The security for the neighborhood is being handled by Iraqi Police, New Iraqi Army and Badr/SCIRI militiamen. Andâ€”quelle surprise!â€”the list topped by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the current leader of SCIRI and the brother of Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, is the favored list. Almost everyone is voting for that one in this area. But for all that, there were a lot of women, and everyone looked happier than I’ve seen them in months.
There were no Americans in sight, except for the Apache choppers circling above.
This is a safe neighborhood and turnout seems pretty good. I can’t speak for the other parts of the city or the country however, because despite assurances from the Ministry of Interior, press cars are being stopped at checkpoints and turned away. We’re all walking today, looks like.
11:32:34 AM Four suicide bombings, all in west Baghdad. Seven dead and several wounded. We can’t get to them because the bridges are blocked off and west Baghdad is on the other side of the Tigris River.
12:22:58 PM Sixth suicide bomb kills six people at a polling center in Baghdad. Unsure on where it is. Some of our other staff are our on the streets right now, and I’ll be heading out again when they get back. (We only have so much security.)
12:29:48 PM Interesting. I’m watching CNN International, and the shots of long lines and happy voters are almost all coming from Iraqi Kurdistan where the voters are motivated and the environment is (relatively) safe. The rub is that CNNi is not identifying the images as coming from Kurdistan; the only way I knew it was from up north was the single shot of someone waving a Kurdish flag. But if you don’t know what the flag looks like (red, white and green bars with a yellow starburst in the center), as I suspect most Americans don’t, you wouldn’t know the context of these images. Shi’ites are also coming out in droves in the south. But Sunnis are staying home. I will be surprised if the Sunni vote hits double digits at this point.
1:03:55 PM The Iraqi Army and Police have been very polite and even friendly at the polling stations, but several reporters have been shot at as they go about in their cars. (Which is why I’m walking around as soon as my security guys get back.)
1:15:38 PM Nine suicide bombs in Baghdad alone, with at least 20 dead. A bomb went off near the home of the Justice Minister. There are a number of outgoing mortars from my neighborhood in the last 10 minutes.
4:56:55 PM Just got back from a couple of polling stations. Things have gone very smoothly, all things considered. Everyone out on the streets is happy, even the Iraqi security forces who will laugh and joke with journalistsâ€”the first time they’ve done it in months. I saw one American convoy patrolling around, but that was it. A few American choppers. But the promise to put the Iraqis front and center seemed to have been kept.
Interesting results from the two polling places I to: the Al-Amil Primary School and the Arabiya Preschool. Almost everyone voting is Shi’a, and the rush came around mid-day. By 2 p.m. when I was out, there weren’t a lot of voters. Most people are voting for Sistani’s list, No. 169, but a significant portion of women are voting for Allawi. They worry about the influence of the religious parties such as SCIRI and Dawa, which dominate No. 169.
The men, however, all voted for No. 169, because they felt it represented them and the people on it would act in the best interests of Iraq. Also because of the tacit support of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. “It’s a patriotic list and it has the support of the marjariya,” said Hamid al-Mousawi, 39, an agricultural engineer. His six-year-old daughter, Abrar, also said she supported the Sistani list and said her father voting was “good” and that she wants to vote, too, when she’s old enough. One word: adorable.
“It’s the first time for the Iraqis to express their opinions,” her father said. “It’s the greatest national eid (holiday) for us.”
“It’s the future, in one word,” said Abdel Karim Ahmed, 51, an agent for the Ministry of Trade in charge of distributing food under the ration-card system. “We are going to elect who will represent us in the National Assembly.”
He declined to say who he was supporting, saying it was a secret ballot, which was completely understandable. But he did say he would waiting anxiously to see who if his list would get seats in the Assembly.
The polling stations were housed in schools, by and large, and several rooms were taken over for the balloting. In each, the cardboard screens were held together with red tape, and then the ballot was dropped in those plastic bins you see on television. The ones I saw were all about three-quarters full.
It was a marked departure from Iraq’s elections in the past, which Saddam won handily, of course.
“I feel like a free man,” said Muhammad Abad al-Badawi, a shopkeeper who had just finished voting. “For the last 35 years, we were electing nothing. They were fake elections.” He’s supporting Allawi, “because he’s a decent man” and he will fix the security situation.
But I have to say, it seems like he’s already fixed it, at least for today. Today’s highly restrictive measures are untenable, of course, and no one can live like this for long, but for a day, the insurgency was kept at bay.
Which is why, several of us journalists here are going to call this elections for the Iraqis. My friend Mitch and I were discussing this and regardless of who wins in the polls, the Iraqis won here and proved themselvesâ€”for a day, at leastâ€”stronger than the insurgency. And that’s a very big symbolic victory. A huge one, in fact, and Iraqis should take great pride in themselves. When they had the opportunity, they stood up and were counted. The real losers were the Sunnis who didn’t participate. They missed a golden opportunity to take part in a process that, while flawed, were the only game in town. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, and a civil war may still erupt, but if it does, the elected governmentâ€”one elected by Shi’a and Kurds, for the most partâ€”will have the moral high ground in it.