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A local resident votes at a polling site in Al Rasheed.
A local resident votes at a polling site in Al Rasheed. (Anita Powell / S&S)
A local resident votes at a polling site in Al Rasheed.
A local resident votes at a polling site in Al Rasheed. (Anita Powell / S&S)
"We all belong to Iraq," said Sheik Abdulla Hamid, 58, a member of the Qarghuli tribe, as he waited in line to vote. "All our tribes are one tribe."
"We all belong to Iraq," said Sheik Abdulla Hamid, 58, a member of the Qarghuli tribe, as he waited in line to vote. "All our tribes are one tribe." (Anita Powell / S&S)
Soldiers of Headquarters Company, 4th Brigade, 6th Iraqi Army Division in Mahmudiyah said that election day would be "the best day."
Soldiers of Headquarters Company, 4th Brigade, 6th Iraqi Army Division in Mahmudiyah said that election day would be "the best day." (Anita Powell / S&S)
Brig. Gen. Mahde Allami, 55, holds up his ink-stained finger after voting in Al-Rasheed. While he didn't disclose which party he chose, he said he felt defense would have to be a priority for the new government.
Brig. Gen. Mahde Allami, 55, holds up his ink-stained finger after voting in Al-Rasheed. While he didn't disclose which party he chose, he said he felt defense would have to be a priority for the new government. (Anita Powell / S&S)
Khawla Hadid Ismael, 34, brought her two daughters and son with her to the polls.
Khawla Hadid Ismael, 34, brought her two daughters and son with her to the polls. (Anita Powell / S&S)

MAHMUDIYAH, Iraq — Something unusual happened Wednesday and Thursday in the so-called “Triangle of Death,” a rural, desperately poor, heavily Sunni area south of Baghdad.

Democracy broke out.

Voters swarmed the area’s 27 polling sites Thursday, easily surpassing October’s estimated turnout of 52,000 voters at 14 polling sites.

Early estimates were that 70,000 people had participated in the election.

The strict curfew and driving ban contributed to an eerie, Christmas-morning feeling on the area’s major roads.

Inside villages, children flew kites, women milled around the markets and men filled roadside tea shops.

American civil affairs officials said that free elections represented a huge leap forward for the area, which did not participate in January’s elections.

As of Thursday evening, no major incidents or casualties had been reported in the area.

Minor blips were reported — several voters complained that they were registered at the wrong polling site, election workers at one site asked for food and at another, complained that the driving ban and road closures made it next to impossible for voters to reach the site.

A day earlier, two American convoys were targeted, one by indirect fire, the other by a roadside bomb.

On Thursday, long lines snaked around the area’s polling places.

At one polling station in the village of Mullah Fayad, voters queued patiently near a road that bore a Jacuzzi-sized hole left in the past by a roadside bomb.

At another polling station in Jarf Al-Sakhar, voters milled about casually on a road pock-marked with bomb holes.

Army officials, who accompanied Iraqi army officials Thursday, were clearly pleased by the turnout and security situation.

“This is absolutely amazing,” said Lt. Col. Eric Conrad, commander of 2nd Battalion, 101st Brigade Troops Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division of Fort Campbell, Ky.

“This is incredible right here. This road right here, before we got here, nobody drove on it.”

Inside the polling station, men lined up single-file and waited quietly to be admitted into small, unlit classrooms with cardboard polling booths.

In the tribal village of Jarf Al-Sakhar, election workers had strung plastic election tape from the ceiling, as if they were party streamers, inside one of the polling rooms.

“We are very glad,” said one election worker through a translator.

“When the voters get in here and see the design, they’ll be happy.”

At the same polling station, a local sheik discussed weightier issues.

“I am refusing all Sunni and Shiite. We all belong to Iraq. All our tribes are one tribe,” said the sheik, Abdulla Hamid, a member of the Qarghuli tribe.

At another polling station in the town of Lutafiyah, Khawla Hadid Ismael beamed as she emerged from a polling room, her three young children in tow.

“I brought my kids here to see why we’re voting to rebuild the country,” said the 34-year-old teacher. “It’s for them.”

Many in this Sunni-heavy area voted for party 618, a Sunni party.

Other voters in the area named platforms 555 and 731 — a Shiite party and Ayad Allawi’s multi-ethnic coalition, respectively — as their choices.

All voters said their top concern was security, both on election day and beyond.

The 4th Brigade, 6th Iraqi Army Division commander, Brig. Gen. Mahde Allami, said that he was pleased by the security provided on election day by his brigade, the so-called “Desert Lions.”

“This is a clear message to the terrorists and the evil forces,” he said through an interpreter.

“By the great effort of the Desert Lion soldiers, they secured the area and people came with confidence.”

But, he said he could not have accomplished such a feat without help from American forces.

“In my area, which is a very disturbed area, there are no other forces but my brigade and the friendly forces,” he said. “In Baghdad, they have the police force, the special forces, and then the third line of defense is the Iraqi army. Here, we’re the front line.”

Mahmudiyah city council member Abdul Zahra Muhammad Ali, 50, was on hand to receive ballots at a polling site. Abdul, dressed entirely in black and accessorized with a constantly worried expression, said he had high hopes for election day.

“We are praying to God to keep it safe,” he said in English.

He opened his mobile phone to show an on-screen photo of a serious-looking young man in a blue dress shirt.

The young man, Abdul explained, was his 21-year-old son, a security guard who was killed in a November car-bomb attack on a hospital in Mahmudiyah.

“We are going to refuse the terrorists,” he said. “We very much like peace.”

“Down here, we’re in baby-steps land,” said Maj. Chris Collier, commander of Company A, 422nd Civil Affairs Battalion, an Army Reserve unit from Greensboro, N.C.

“If the people have the confidence in the security to just go vote … I would call it a success.”

On Wednesday, an enormous convoy carrying 850 poll workers, six trucks full of ballots and Iraqi and American security forces delivered election supplies to the area.

The nearly 2-mile-long line of vehicles, carrying nearly 1,000 people, snaked its way along, often slowing to a terrifying snail’s pace, from a warehouse west of Baghdad, down several desolate freeways to polling sites.

Not a single shot was fired at the convoy, which contained members of the Iraqi police and army, as well as several tense U.S. soldiers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division.

U.S. soldiers working with Headquarters Company, 4th Brigade, 6th Iraqi Army Division said that a prominent insurgent group called off all attacks for several days, in order to allow Iraqis to participate in the election.

When asked how they felt about the election, the Iraqi soldiers broke into song and dance, clapping their hands, linking arms and laughing exuberantly as amused American soldiers watched.

“This is the best day for them,” a U.S. Army translator explained.

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