Friday, December 15, 2006

Elections Represented Hope for Iraqis

By Jim Garamone

Dec. 15, 2006 – A year ago today was Election Day in Iraq. For the first time, millions of Iraqis had a real choice in their government, and they took advantage of it. President Bush, visiting with Iraqis voting absentee from the United States, lauded Iraqis for "being courageous and in defying the terrorists and refusing to be cowed into not voting."

"I believe freedom is universal," Bush said. "I believe the Iraqi citizen cares just as much about freedom and living a free life as the American citizen does."

Under Saddam Hussein, there was one choice in so-called elections: him. Now Iraqis have gone to the polls to elect 275 people, 25 percent of whom had to be women, to represent them.

The ballot for the Dec. 15, 2005, election was incredibly complicated, with hundreds of candidates running for office. Some were affiliated with nascent political parties, others ran on their own. Some parties were affiliated with a particular sect or tribe. Others cut across ethnic and religious boundaries.

Election Day in Iraq was also a triumph for the Iraqi security forces. "All the time and money you have spent training the Iraqi army, you harvest it today," Iraqi
army Maj. Gen. Mobdir Hatim Hothya al-Delemy told then-3rd Infantry Division Commander U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William Webster following a tour of polling places that day.

Election Day dawned clear, cool and quiet. The interim government had banned traffic in Baghdad, and people treated the day as a secular holiday. At 6 a.m., with the sun just peeking over the horizon, people were walking to their polling stations In Baghdad, this usually meant a short walk to a school, firehouse or municipal building. In the country, the walk could be longer, but people packed picnic baskets and turned the occasion into a family outing.

Women in traditional "abayas" walked along the sides of roads, often followed by a line of children. Men usually walked a bit ahead.

With the absence of traffic, all of Baghdad became a playground. Children set up soccer "fields" in the middle of wide avenues. Whole neighborhoods were on the streets, and people visited in the shaded areas.

By mid-day, the stream of voters to the polls became a flood. In Sadr City, an area under the responsibility of the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, lines of people waited to vote.

Security was tight. Iraqi police guarded polling places themselves. They searched everyone who came into the polling places. A bit farther back from each polling station, Iraqi soldiers maintained a ring of security. They stopped cars, checked out suspicious activities, and interacted with the people. Further back, coalition forces stood ready to assist if the Iraqi forces encountered any problems they couldn't handle. They were never needed.

Iraqis were glad to see their soldiers on the street. In downtown Rusafa, an area just east of the Tigris River, a crowd surrounded an Iraqi platoon and began singing and dancing. Nearby, a woman danced into a polling place set up in a Christian school. At polling places, men and women brought their children in and polling workers allowed the children to put the dye on their fingers signifying a vote.

Sunnis, who had boycotted the Jan. 30, 2005, election for a constitutional assembly, voted across Baghdad and across the country. More than 12 million Iraqis voted nationwide. The turnout was almost 80 percent of eligible voters.

"The Iraqi people have had a great day today," Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., commander of coalition forces in Iraq, said that day.

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