Iraq, the Vote: The Press Sizes Up the Election

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By: Greg Mitchell

How the American public reacts to the Iraqi election will no doubt be influenced by images they saw on televison and the words they read in the press. Did the turnout, and violence, meet or exceed expectations? And what does it all mean? E&P updated how the American press reacted all day Sunday and into Monday.

The main line: less violence than expected and higher turnout (though much less in Sunni regions).

But more complicated questions emerged as the hours wore on. What does “high turnout” mean? Is it a percentage of all eligible voters or just those who registered? Do the vast disparities suggest a coming civil war? Or did the insurgency suffer a death blow in failing to severely disrupt the process? And what are the results of the voting likely to show: a broadly representative government or one that may take Iraq in a direction troublesome for the United States?

The material below was updated, with the most recent postings coming first, blog-style.

***
5:00 PM Monday

Tom Lasseter, Baghdad reporter for Knight Ridder newspapers, took a clear-eyed look after the celebration of the Sunday vote in many parts of Iraq had started to wind down.

“With the first phase of ballot counting in Iraq finished, concerns were growing Monday that many of the country’s Sunni Muslims may not have voted, raising the possibility that the election could aggravate the rift between Iraq’s Sunni minority and a Shiite Muslim majority that appears poised to take power….

“If the final results confirm a low Sunni turnout, it would mean that despite the euphoria and dancing in the streets on Sunday, as much as 20 percent of the population, most of it in the heart of the country, may not accept the results as legitimate. That could provide new fuel for the mostly Sunni insurgency….

“I don’t even want to name all of the potentially more or less awful things that could arise from this,” a U.S. diplomat said.

“The number of insurgent attacks on Sunday, 260, was the highest ever recorded since the U.S. occupation began. Including insurgents, at least 65 people were killed in the fighting….

“On Monday, the jihadist group Ansar al Islam released a tape showing what appeared to be a fighter shooting down a British C-130 transport plane Sunday night. The British government has confirmed that the aircraft went down, and that 10 died, but it hasn’t given a cause.

“Also Monday, the military said three U.S. Marines had been killed south of Baghdad.

“And at the detainee center of Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, riots left four dead and six injured on Monday. The violence came, according to the U.S. military, during a search for contraband.”

***
10:00 AM Monday

Farnaz Fassihi, the Wall Street Journal reporter in Baghdad who earned world renown, and praise, for an eloquently frank e-mail message last fall that exposed deteriorating conditions, today provided another first person account, this time for her paper, on the election. It concluded:

“Election Day was the most uplifting moment I’ve witnessed in the two years that I’ve been stationed in Iraq. I was here for the last Iraqi election, in October 2002, when Saddam held a referendum to solidify his rule. Then, there was one name on the ballot, and rejecting him meant retaliation no one dared to even ponder. At a polling station in Tikrit that day, the crowd broke into cheers and dances as soon as our bus full of journalists approached. Voters poked their hands with needles to pledge their alliance to Saddam with their blood. It was a formidable show, but obviously not genuine.

“Since then, I have marked many milestones in Iraq since the war officially began in March 2003 — fall of the regime, killing of Saddam’s sons Uday and Qussay, formation of the Governing Council, the capture of Saddam, the handover of sovereignty to an interim government and now the creation of a national assembly. None has captured the attention and imagination of Iraqis the way yesterday’s elections did.

“Iraqis viewed those events with the skepticism and suspicion they always do for things forced upon them by an outside hand — in this case the Americans. It’s difficult to predict what yesterday’s election will mean in the coming months. The new government will continue to battle a raging insurgency, while negotiating a new constitution in hopes it will help restore the war-torn nation.

“But one thing is clear: Iraqis have finally broken from the past.”

***

11:00 PM ET

John F. Burns, old Baghdad hand for The New York Times, writing for Monday’s paper, notes the euphoria in many parts of Iraq but also addresses the question of how much of this was a “pro-American” vote. There is, after all, much sentiment in the country, well beyond the insurgents, that the United States must go.

Burns writes that “only a detailed breakdown of the seats won by the 110 individuals, parties and alliances on Sunday’s ballot, and weeks of political maneuvering that will follow, will show whether the good will evident at the polling stations extends to the elected politicians.

“Nor, it seemed clear, could Americans assume that elections made possible by United States military power would reverse, except briefly, the hostility toward their country. Many voters said they would not have been there choosing new leaders if the United States had not led the invasion that rid them of Mr. Hussein. But as often as not, the words seemed reluctant, as if crediting Americans for anything was a step too far.

“One man, Ahmed Dujaily, 80, a London-trained engineer who was agriculture minister under King Faisal II, put it politely. ‘We thank the Americans for destroying the regime of Saddam,’ he said. ‘But often, they were not careful for the people; they did many wrong things. Now, we know what they are looking for. They are looking for oil, and military bases, and domination of the new regime. They will have their military headquarters for the region in Iraq, and when they will leave, nobody knows.'”

And this from Robert Reid of The Associated Press:

“Iraq pulled off an election against all odds and the best efforts of insurgents to blow it up.

“Now comes the hard part: forming a new governing coalition, writing a constitution and winning trust.

“Achieving those goals will be tough because the election was tempered by the absence of many of the Sunni Arabs, who honored a boycott call and avoided the polls.

“‘The most critical period is going to be the next 60 to 90 days while the results are being worked out,'” said James Dobbins of the Rand Corp. ‘If the winners treat it as a winner-take-all contest in the American tradition, it’s probably going to further polarize the country and bring higher levels of violence.'”

***

8:00 PM ET

Tom Lasseter, the fine Baghdad reporter for Knight Ridder newspapers, files:

“A senior American military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the day was more check than checkmate.

“‘I would say that effectively the insurgency just lost … maybe not the war, but the first major battle,’ he said. ‘It’s not over. Peace is not breaking out tomorrow.’

“While the insurgents failed to derail the elections, they succeeded in dictating how the voting was conducted. No civilian cars were allowed on the streets because of the hundreds, if not thousands, of Iraqis killed by car bombers in the past year. Top Iraqi officials, guarded by phalanxes of Western security contractors, cast their votes in a compound guarded by tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and American soldiers.

“There’s still deep-rooted worry that the vote could spark more violence between a now-disenfranchised Sunni Muslim minority and the long-oppressed Shiite majority that’s almost certain to dominate the results.”

***

5:30 PM ET

The Washington Post site has put up some brief dispatches from several correspondents in Iraq, all worth reading. Here’s one from Steven Fainaru, which suggests that reports of less-violence-than-expected might be slightly misleading:

“Sunni areas of Mosul, 220 miles north of Baghdad, were among the low-to-no-turnout districts. At four polling stations visited in the southeastern part of the city during the afternoon, four voters were seen.

“Two of the polling places reported they had been attacked in the past 24 hours. One had been mortared. Another had taken small arms fire.

“An improvised explosive was found at a mosque around the corner from one of the polling stations. The device apparently had been planted right after Iraqi security forces used a loud speaker in the mosque to try to encourage people in the neighborhood to vote, urging them not to be scared.

“In the first three hours at another polling place in Mosul, 15 members of the Iraqi security forces were the only voters to cast their ballots.”

Meanwhile, Anthony Shadid of the Post observed that if turnout numbers hold up “the election will stand as perhaps the freest, most competitive election in an authoritarian Arab world and a rare victory for the Bush administration in Iraq.”

***

2:30 PM ET

The widely-publicized estimates a few hours ago from Iraq election officials of 72% turnout has already been cut to about 57% from the same officials. Dexter Filkins of The New York Times reported at midday:

“The chairman of the Independent Election Commission of Iraq, Fareed Ayar, said as many as 8 million people turned out to vote, or between 55 percent and 60 percent of those registered to cast ballots. If 8 million turns out to be the final figure, that would represent 57 percent of voters.”

The question remains: what percentage of the population chose to register? What percentage of adult citizens participated? Iraq has a population of at least 25 million, plus expatriates were allowed to vote overseas.

Filkins also offered a notably optimistic assessment:

“But if the insurgents wanted to stop people in Baghdad from voting, they failed. If they wanted to cause chaos, they failed. The voters were completely defiant, and there was a feeling that the people of Baghdad, showing a new, positive attitude, had turned a corner.

“No one was claiming that the insurgency was over or that the deadly attacks would end. But the atmosphere in this usually grim capital, a city at war and an ethnic microcosm of the country, had changed, with people dressed in their finest clothes to go to the polls in what was generally a convivial mood.”

Meanwhile, pair of reporters for the Los Angeles Times confirmed this afternoon that turnout varied widely, “with strong participation in Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq and the Shiite Muslim south. Steady streams of voters were seen in parts of Baghdad, but hundreds of polling places, mainly in Sunni cities north and west of the capital, did not open on time because of security concerns.

“Amid incessant death threats from insurgents, voter turnout in the Sunni stronghold of Ramadi was the poorest of any major Iraqi city despite a massive effort to assure the safety of voters by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

“Turnout was light throughout the Al Anbar province, but the sparse turnout did not stop military commanders from calling the day a success.”


***

10:00 AM ET

Dexter Filkins of The New York Times reported this morning: “American officials were showing confidence that today was going to be a big success, despite attacks in Baghdad and other parts of the country that took 39 lives, according to the Interior Ministry.

“Preliminary figures showed that 72 percent of registered voters turned out to vote, said a member of the Independent Electorial Commission, Adel Lami, excluding the mainly Sunni Muslim provinces of Anbar and Nineveh. But another official said the early figures should be treated with caution.” Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice called the turnout “better than expected.”

Mariam Fam in the Chicago Tribune noted that “polls were largely deserted throughout the 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 neighborhood’s four polling centers did not open at all, residents said. In Samarra, north of Baghdad, stations were empty for hours, but later hundreds of people showed up.

“A low Sunni turnout could undermine the new government and worsen tensions among the country’s ethnic, religious and cultural groups.” But overall officials “said turnout appeared higher than expected, although it was too soon to tell for sure.”

A team of reporters for The Washington Post wrote in a dispatch: “Final results will not be known for seven to 10 days, but a preliminary tally could come as early as late Sunday. The vote was to choose a national assembly to help govern Iraq temporarily and write a permanent constitution.

“Iraqi election officials said that most of the country’s 5,500 polling stations managed to get open and stay open often under the heaviest security ever provided for any election day anywhere. There were lines and scenes of celebration in the most heavily involved Shiite districts around Baghdad even as explosions reverberated across the city.

“Officials acknowledged that some stations opened late or were deserted, particularly in areas of frequent insurgent attacks dominated by Sunni Muslims such as Fallujah, Ramadi and Samarra, west and north of Baghdad.

“And in some restive cities where the polls were operating, the voters were not.

“At one polling place in southeast Mosul, for example, the only voters by late in the day were 15 Iraqi security forces assigned to keep the peace.”

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