BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqis defied threats of violence and calls for a boycott to cast ballots in Iraq’s first free election in a half-century 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 suicide bombers.
A British C-130 military transport plane crashed north of Baghdad, and the wreckage was strewn over a large area, officials said. C-130s can carry dozens of passengers, though there was no word on how many were on the crashed plane, and the number of casualties and cause of the crash were not immediately known.
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, and some streets were packed with voters walking shoulder-to-shoulder to vote at five polling stations where photographers were allowed. One elderly woman sat on a wooden cart, wheeled to the polls by a relative; 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.
But 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 neighborhood’s four polling centers 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.
Officials said turnout among the 14 million eligible voters appeared higher than the 57 percent that had been predicted, although it was too soon to tell for sure.
Prominent Sunni politician Adnan Pachachi, who in recent months had called for the vote to be postponed because of violence, said he was “relieved” and “encouraged” by a turnout he said was better than expected, even in Fallujah and Mosul.
“I think this is an important first step towards establishing a democratic system in Iraq,” Pachachi, who is standing as a candidate in the vote, told CNN.
Casting his vote, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi called it “the first time the Iraqis will determine their destiny.”
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (news – web sites) said the election was “not perfect” but was better than expected. “What we’re seeing here is the voice of freedom,” she said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Shiite Muslims, estimated at 60 percent 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.
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 President Bush (news – web sites)’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 U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, including a Marine killed in combat Sunday in Iraq’s restive Anbar province.
Guerrilla attacks began within two hours of the balloting’s start Sunday morning. Over the day Baghdad saw eight suicide attacks, 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 Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City and 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-Qaida 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 5 p.m., thunderous explosions reverberated through central Baghdad, though their cause was unknown.
Just before the close, one official with the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq put turnout at 72 percent, 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 gathered informally from the field. It will take some time for the IECI to issue accurate figures on turnout.”
Several hundred people turned out to vote in eastern districts of the heavily Sunni city of Mosul — Iraq’s third largest city and a center for insurgent violence in past months. But in western parts of Mosul, clashes erupted between guerrillas and Iraqi soldiers.
Voter turnout was brisk in Shiite Muslim and mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad, and U.S. officials said some stations ran out of ballots. 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 centers.
Rumors of impending violence were rife. 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, U.S. 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.
Security was tight. About 300,000 Iraqi and American troops were on the streets and on standby to protect voters, who entered polling stations under loops of razor wire and the watchful eye of rooftop sharpshooters.
Final results of the election will not be known for seven to 10 days, but a preliminary tally could come as early as late Sunday.
A ticket endorsed by the country’s leading Shiite 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 marginalization under the Baath 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 Serwin Suker and sister Bigat. 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, with officials in Australia extending polling station hours because of an earlier riot and bomb scare.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Sunday’s balloting “the first step” toward democracy. “It’s a beginning, not an end,” he said.