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Marines put best face on 'no-shows' in Ramadi

Voter turnout was not uniform throughout Iraq. NBC News' Jim Maceda reports on the low turnout in Ramadi - in the heart of the Sunni triangle -amounting to close to just one percent of eligible voters.
US Army Police Iraqi Election In Ramadi
An Iraqi commando fills out his ballot at a polling station in Ramadi on Sunday.Joe Raedle / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

Voter turnout in Ramadi, the capital of restive Al Ansar Province and in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, was disappointing, but hardly unexpected.

According to U.S. military sources, around 1,700 Iraqis, mostly Sunnis, voted here, representing about 1 percent of eligible voters.

The city's main polling site looked like a high security no-man's-land for most of the day.

Marines from Golf Company patrolled its outer perimeter, hoping for long lines of voters and bracing for suicide bombers. Neither showed up.

Specially trained Iraqi commando teams had little to do but sit and chat. By closing time, only 13 Iraqis had placed their ballots inside the former Ministry of Education building.

Company Commander, Capt. Jeff Kenney was philosophical. “If you think about how brave the people are who did vote, you have to consider this a success in itself,” he said.

'Strategic victory'
Figures for the entire province painted a slightly brighter picture. Over 15,000 Iraqis voted, including around 7,500 in Fallujah, scene of a major U.S. counter offensive last November that destroyed much of the city.

While there are no precise census data, U.S. military sources believe that in the end up to 10 percent of Al Ansar’s Sunnis voted.

On Monday, Marines here described it as a “strategic victory” given the threat of mortars, roadside bombs, and raging street battles, as well as calls by Sunni leaders to boycott the vote and public warnings by Islamist militants that anyone who cast a ballot was signing a death warrant.

“Now we’ve got this jump-out point,” said Lt. Brian Iglesias, one of Golf Company’s platoon leaders in charge of training Iraqi security forces. “We’ve got the base of the totem pole. Next year hopefully things will get better.”

Sgt. Mike Brown looked exhausted. For most of the past week, his civil affairs unit went house to house, at great personal risk, handing out fliers about the election and trying to persuade the residents of Ramadi that casting their vote meant taking charge of their future.

“Of course I’m disappointed,” he said. “But the bottom line is, 60 percent of Iraqis voted. That’s a success.”

But Brown and many Marines here admit that, unless the winners of this election now reach out to the losers, U.S. forces will be hunkered down in “hot zones” like Ramadi, and taking casualties on a daily basis, for a long time to come.