Friday, December 16, 2005

Iraqis Vote Again


I woke up at 5:30 a.m. this morning and got myself ready for the big day. It is Thursday December 15 and Iraqis are supposed to elect a new parliament. This is the second time Iraqis elect a new legislature after the January 30, 2005 vote for the interim National Assembly. Today they will chose a four-year parliament, which will be called from now on the Council of Representatives. At 6:30 a.m. I left the office with my colleague K and headed toward the City Hall. There were no cars in the streets except for security forces because the Interior Ministry had banned movement of cars for three days staring December 14. The airports and borders were also closed for three days. We drove slowly with the flash lights on until we reached the Khilani Mosque near Sinak Bridge in central Baghdad. One of the many policeman in the area waved for us to stop from a distance and got closer to us carrying a pistol in his right hand. He looks at our press passes then searches the car. The man then said the car should be parked at a distance and we should walk to the City Hall few hundred meters away. As we crossed the first checkpoint and walked toward the other we heard the explosion of a mortar round. Few seconds later alert sirens could be heard from the Green Zone on the other side of the Tigris River. We were searched five times before we entered the building. Large numbers of people started coming in to vote shortly after the doors opened at 7:00 a.m. An 80-year-old woman was one of the first to cast ballots. She asked her daughter to show her where she should mark the election card then dipped her index finger in indelible ink before casting the ballot in the box. As she walked from the room where she voted along with her daughter, I asked her a few questions. "Why are you asking me who I voted for. Of course I voted for the clerics. They are the only ones who don't rob us," the lady said with a big smile on her face. "Oh. You are a journalist? What did you do to us yesterday. What have you done to the water?" she said then headed to the elevator. She was referring to rumors that spread around Baghdad Wednesday night that the water system in the city was poisoned. Until about 3 a.m. Thursday people were being told through mosques loud speakers not to drink water. The Health Ministry then issued a statement denying the reports. Until about 6 p.m. people kept going to stations and Farid Ayar, a senior official with the Independent Electoral Commission, said he believes that as much as 11 million of the 15 million eligible voters participated. It is not strange for Iraq, which is known to have high turnouts in such votes. Most of the people who I asked who they voted for said they chose the slates representing their sect or ethnic groups. Most Shiites I spoke to said they voted for the United Iraqi Alliance while Kurds said they voted for the Kurdish Alliance and Sunni Arabs for the Iraqi Consensus Front. Many Christians voted for the list of Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, and Rafidain List of Christian politician Yonadem Kanna. Three hours later I went to a polling station on the western side of the Tigris River and spent half an hour there before heading back to the office. As I was going in an Iraq soldier asked me to unzip my jacket apparently to make sure I am not wearing an explosive belt. On the way back we passed several checkpoints of masked policemen. Those who appear to have enjoyed the three-day ban on cars most were children who turned the streets of the sprawling city to playgrounds. Back to the office, wrote my story. It is incredible how much Iraq has changed in the past three years. Unlike the October 15, 2002 referendum in which Saddam Hussein won 100 percent of the vote now Iraqis chose who represents them and it is almost impossible for any group to win the vast majority. At the same time since the fall of his regime tens of thousands of people have been killed and Iraq has become one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to security. Car bombs, murder, robberies, kidnapping for ransom are very common in Iraq now. Election day was safe and apart from few mortar rounds and shooting all went well. An Iraqi man, poking fun at American President George W. Bush and his statements that Iraqi has become a democracy, told me a few months ago: "We are so happy we can vote now but God knows if we are going to be alive tomorrow."
Bassem Mroue
Baghdad Dec 17, 2005. 2 a.m.

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