Connect to share and comment

Iraq redefines itself with peaceful elections

BAQUBA, Iraq: On voting day as Iraqis went to the polls, the world saw purple fingers raised in a sign of victory over violence. Behind those images is a country still defining itself, where rocket-propelled grenades and tanks stationed near polling sites help oversee Iraq's halting steps towards democracy.

In 2005, I watched nervous election officials in Baquba stay up all night counting ballots at a hangar in a U.S. Army base. Although publicly the U.S. wasn't involved in Iraqi elections, it was the only place the Iraqi election commission was confident they wouldn't be attacked.

That was a country under U.S. occupation. Four years later, with the status of forces agreement in December that turned U.S. forces into invited guests, the relationship is supposed to be one of cooperation.

With almost 400 non-Iraqi monitors, this was one of the most heavily observed elections in the Middle East. But it's a big country.

As I set off with U.N. and U.S. election monitors from Tel Afar in a convoy of M-Raps — just a few steps down from a tank — the Marine gunny gave a safety brief that included a sobering reminder of the potential perils on the road to democracy in north-Western Iraq.

"If anything happens and we can identify the target we'll stop and take him out," he said matter-of-factly.

This is territory under Iraqi government control but coveted by the Kurds, who say they have a historical claim to it. While the Marines kept watch for insurgents, at brief stops at polling stations, monitors watched for signs of intimidation and voting irregularities. There was nothing though on their checklist specifically for election officials stopping the voting to have lunch, or people going behind the screen insisting that their sisters and wives couldn't vote for themselves. These are communities where a lot of the voters can't read the ballots — they leave a finger-print in lieu of signing their name.

No one seemed fazed by the dozens of Iraqi soldiers and police near each school that served at a polling station, backed by U.S. soldiers and marines at the outer perimeters. At one intersection a U.S. tank was perched on a hill — its turret pointed towards the polling station.

At another polling site, approval from the civilian election official to allow photographs was overturned by a 22-year-old Iraqi police lieutenant — making it clear who was in charge. "There are terrorists here who will come and kill people," he said. Asked about the last time there was a terrorist attack in what has become a significantly calmer region, he said he couldn't talk about it.

At another it seemed to be tribal officials in charge — when a police officer told them he had approved taking photographs, he was told sharply: "The police don't matter." For a minute it seemed as if a fist-fight would break out.

In one polling center, voting seemed to have been suspended to allow the election workers inside to eat lunch — platters of rice and lamb and small glasses of sugary tea. The only workers not eating were the three women inside a pop-up tent who had been paid $5 each to search women voters for the day. One was breast-feeding her six-month-old daughter. She had six others at home and a husband who made $40 a month as a part-time guard. None of them had voted or saw the point.

At the entrance to the school turned polling station, an Iraqi soldier lounged on a bench with a rocket-propelled grenade at his feet. They are not government-issue. The police have long argued that they need weapons at least as powerful as those they are fighting and in some places they go out and get it or take it themselves.

"Do you want to buy it?" he joked. "How much?" he was asked. "Only insurgents know the price."