'Iraqis determine their destiny'

Iraqis defied violence and calls for a boycott to cast ballots in Iraq’s first free election in a half-century on Sunday. Insurgents seeking to wreck the vote struck polling stations with a string of suicide bombings and mortar volleys, killing at least 44 people, including nine attackers.

Women in black abayas whispered prayers at the sound of a nearby explosion as they waited to vote at one Baghdad polling station.

But the mood for many was upbeat: Civilians and policemen danced with joy at one of the five polling stations where photographers were allowed, and some streets were packed with voters walking shoulder-to-shoulder to vote. The elderly made their way, hobbling on canes or riding wheelchairs; one elderly woman was pushed along on a wooden cart, another man carried a disabled 80-year-old on his back.

“This is democracy,” said Karfia Abbasi, holding up a thumb stained with purple ink to prove she had voted.

Officials said turnout among the 14-million eligible voters appeared higher than the 57% that had been predicted, although it would be some time before any turnout figure was confirmed.

Polls were largely deserted all day in many cities of the Sunni Triangle north and west of the capital, particularly Fallujah, Ramadi and Beiji.
In Baghdad’s mainly Sunni Arab area of Azamiyah, the neighbourhood’s four polling centres did not open at all, residents said.

A low Sunni turnout could undermine the new government that will emerge from the vote and worsen tensions among the country’s ethnic, religious and cultural groups.

In a reminder of the dangers that persist in Iraq, a British C-130 military transport plane crashed north of Baghdad about a half hour after polls closed at 5pm (2pm GMT). Wreckage was strewn over a large area, a US official said, though there was no

word on the number of casualties or cause of the crash. It was not known how many people were on board, but C-130s can carry well over 100 passengers.

“The world is hearing the voice of freedom from the centre of the Middle East,” President George Bush said, praising Iraqis for rejecting “the anti-democratic ideology of the terrorists. They have refused to be intimidated by thugs.”

Casting his vote, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi called it “the first time the Iraqis will determine their destiny”.

With Arabs across the Middle East watching the vote, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak telephoned Allawi to congratulate him on the election, saying he hoped it would “open the way for the restoration of calm and stability”.

The president of the United Arab Emirates also phoned his good wishes.

Prominent Iraqi Sunni politician Adnan Pachachi, who in recent months had called for the vote to be postponed because of violence, told CNN he was “relieved” and “encouraged” by a turnout he said was better than expected, even in Fallujah and Mosul.

Shi’ite Muslims, estimated at 60% of Iraq’s 26-million people, were expected to vote in large numbers, encouraged by clerics who hope their community will gain power after generations of oppression by the Sunni minority.

After a slow start, voting appeared heavy in Shi’ite and mixed Shi’ite-Sunni neighbourhoods in Baghdad but low in some heavily Sunni areas. Sunnis in mixed neighbourhoods may have voted in greater numbers there because pressure to boycott was less intense—and chances of retaliation lower because they would not stand out at the polls. There are few ways by sight to distinguish Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs.

The election will create a 275-member National Assembly and 18 provincial legislatures. The assembly will draw up the country’s permanent Constitution and will select a president and two deputy presidents, who in turn will name a new prime minister and Cabinet to serve for 11 months until new elections are held.

The election is a major test of Bush’s goal of promoting democracy in the Middle East. If successful, it also could hasten the day when the United States brings home its 150 000 troops. More than 1 400 members of the US military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, including a marine killed in combat on Sunday in Iraq’s restive Anbar province.

Guerrilla attacks began within two hours of the balloting’s start on Sunday morning. All but one of the day’s suicide attacks came in Baghdad, mostly against polling sites, using bombers on foot with explosives strapped to their bodies since private cars were banned from the streets.

In one of the deadliest attacks of the day, a bomber got onto a minibus carrying voters to the polls near Hillah, south of Baghdad, and detonated his explosives, killing himself and at least four other people, the Polish military said.

Deadly mortar volleys hit Baghdad’s Shi’ite neighbourhood of Sadr City, while other mortars struck voters at several sites in Balad, and Kirkuk in the north and Mahawil south of the capital. Across the country, at least 35 people and nine suicide bombers were killed.

The group al-Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for election-day attacks in a web statement, although the claim could not be verified. The group’s leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is said to be behind many of the suicide car-bombings, kidnappings and beheadings of foreigners in Iraq, and his group vowed to kill those who ventured out to vote.

A few hours after polls closed at 5pm (2pm GMT), thunderous explosions reverberated through central Baghdad, though their cause was unknown.

Concern over violence was rife as voters entered polling stations under loops of razor wire and the watchful eye of rooftop sharpshooters. About 300 000 Iraqi and US troops were on the streets and on standby to protect voters. When an unexplained boom sounded near one Baghdad voting station, some women put their hands to their mouths and whispered prayers. Others continued walking calmly to the voting stations.

Several shouted in unison: “We have no fear.” “Am I scared? Of course I’m not scared. This is my country,” said 50-year-old Fathiya Mohammed, wearing a head-to-toe abaya cloak.

At one site, an Iraqi policeman in a black ski mask tucked his assault rifle under one arm and took the hand of an elderly blind woman, guiding her to the polls.

In Ramadi, US troops tried to coax voters with loudspeakers, preaching the importance of every ballot. The governor of the mostly Sunni province of Salaheddin, Hamad Hmoud Shagti, went on the radio to lobby for a higher turnout. “This is a chance for you as Iraqis to assure your and your children’s future,” he said.

In the small town of Askan in the so-called “triangle of death” south of Baghdad, 20 people waited in line at each of several polling centres.

Several hundred people turned out to vote in eastern districts of the heavily Sunni city of Mosul—Iraq’s third largest city and a centre for insurgent violence in past months. But in western parts of Mosul, clashes erupted between guerrillas and Iraqi

soldiers.

Just before the close, one official with the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq put turnout at 72%, but he later said that did not include the largely Sunni provinces of Anbar and Nineveh, and the commission said the figure was based on

“very rough, word-of-mouth estimates”.

Final results of the election will not be known for seven to 10 days, but a preliminary tally could come as early as early as late on Sunday.

A ticket endorsed by the country’s leading Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is expected to fare best among the 111 candidate lists. However, no faction is expected to win an outright majority, meaning possibly weeks of political deal-making before a new prime minister is chosen.

The elections will also give Kurds a chance to gain more influence in Iraq after long years of marginalisation under the Ba’ath Party that ruled the country for 34 years.

“This proves that we are now free,” said Akar Azad (19) who came to the polls with his wife and sister. In addition to the assembly and provincial votes, Kurds are also choosing a regional Parliament for their zone of northern Iraq.

Iraqis in 14 nations also held the last of three days of overseas balloting on Sunday.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Sunday’s balloting “the first step” toward democracy. “It’s a beginning, not an end,” he said. - Sapa-AP

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