After a slow start, rural residents get busy voting in historic Iraq elections
January 31, 2005
OMYER AHMAD AS SAMIR, Iraq — Master Sgt. Joseph Lieberman loves coming to the villages on the forlorn plains 30 miles east of Tikrit. The people, says Lieberman, a civil affairs solder attached to the 1st Infantry Division, are genuine and friendly, unlike the people in the urban areas here near Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit.
Even on Election Day.
Like Tikrit, people on the plains are Sunni, and the area is still part of the Sunni Triangle, the most dangerous region for coalition forces. But following the lead of their sheiks — cultivated by soldiers and officers from the Schweinfurt, Germany-based Troop C, 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st ID — rural Sunnis apparently voted in droves in Sunday’s elections.
Soldiers from 1-4 Cavalry drove across eastern Iraq from Forward Operating Base Wilson near Tikrit, picking up nearly 7,000 ballots in an area with 20,000 residents. “That’s better than the U.S.,” said Maj. Keith Barclay, FOB Wilson executive officer, said of the voter turnout.
The drive was eerily serene, with no traffic either way on the 60-mile round trip drive because of a nationwide ban of driving Sunday to curb possible suicide car bombers.
As Barclay entered al-Badeyia School, polling place 27 in a village a few miles east of Tikrit, a sheik said 2,500 people have voted in the sparsely populated area.
When Barclay tells the sheik that in Jillam, home to insurgent leader Ibrahim Al-Douri, one person voted, the gaggle of police, soldiers and villagers break out in laughter.
“Well, maybe they didn’t have as good a security as you,” Barclay said, surrounded by dozens of assault-rifle wielding Iraqi soldiers and police.
It was a rare moment of levity what was otherwise deadly serious business. Al-Douri and other insurgents swore to make the streets run red with blood during the election.
As for Al-Douri, “some people still think he’s out here somewhere,” said Master Sgt. Steven Ziebarth, non-commissioned officer in charge at FOB Wilson, gesturing toward the dry washes around Omyer Ahmad as Samir.
Though FOB Wilson’s area of responsibility was relatively quiet for the election, there were incidents.
On Saturday, a sniper wounded an Iraqi soldier based at FOB Wilson.
Another insurgent tried to put a pipe bomb in a building a few meters from a polling station in Omyer Ahmad as Samir. Iraqi police and soldiers opened up on him, firing hundreds of rounds, but failing to kill him, Ziebarth said. American ordnance disposal soldiers destroyed the bomb, he said.
Soldiers worked hard to cultivate local tribal sheiks to bolster security and to improvise their way through several mass mutinies by Iraqi poll workers.
The busy Iraqi-vote monitoring center at FOB Wilson tracked the uneven turnout.
In Ad-Dawr, next to FOB Wilson, three of four Sunni-neighborhood voting stations recorded zero votes as of noon Sunday, while nearby Shiite neighborhoods had modest turnouts.
But by 9 a.m. — two hours after the voting started, it was clear the sheiks’ areas were swamped with voters.
“I’m really excited about that. I’m really excited,” Barclay said as the numbers came in. “This is really a big deal.”
As his soldiers picked up ballots, Barclay said he’s confident that the votes are legitimate because the sheiks involved have always been reliable: “We’ve worked with them since Day One.”
As the 14-soldier team prepared to leave FOB Wilson at about 2 p.m. to pick up ballot boxes, Barclay remind the soldiers the job was almost finished.
“There’s been a lot of stress,” he said. “When we get the ballots back to FOB Wilson, then it will have been a successful election.”