How voting went at polling places throughout Iraq varied widely — depending on the security situation and ethnic make-up of the area. AP reporters filed these briefs from major Iraqi cities.
Strikingly different scenes unfolded on opposite sides of the muddy Tigris River that cuts through Iraq’s third largest city.
In mostly Kurdish areas on the east bank, people voted.
In predominantly Arab areas to the west, ballot papers mostly went wasted. People milled about polling sites, but few ventured in. Perhaps some wanted to vote but had second thoughts. Fear was strong.
Many Iraqis in this northern city of 2 million people and elsewhere in the country worried the bright purple ink used to mark index fingers to prevent multiple voting would also mark them for death by insurgents.
One man marked his ballot in a room with walls that had been scarred by bullets during a previous battle.
Outside another polling site, a man who had been shot in the face by an insurgent gunman sought help from a U.S. medic. Blood soaked his checkered headdress and dripped from his chin.
The anxiety drenching the city had little effect on its children, who bounced soccer balls around streets empty of cars.
Just after dawn, Baghdad’s empty streets shook with the thunder of incoming mortar rounds. Gunfire crackled like the sound of rocks falling into a deep canyon.
Because private vehicles were banned from roads to stop car bombs reaching their targets, the elderly and disabled had to be carried to polls in the arms of relatives or pushed along in wheelchairs.
An Iraqi policeman wearing a black ski mask tucked his AK-47 assault rifle under one arm and guided an elderly blind woman by the hand to the polls.
Deprived of their cars, insurgents too had to improvise: They sent squads of men into the city on foot with bombs strapped to their bodies.
Eight suicide bombers unleashed blasts throughout the day, killing themselves and at least 19 other people. An Iraqi policeman who spotted one of the attackers approaching a polling site leapt on the man as the blast ripped them both apart.
“Am I scared? Or course I’m not scared. This is my country,” said 50-year-old Fathiya Mohammed, heading to a nearby polling station alone, but moving quickly.
Elsewhere, a pair of children kicked a soccer ball in the middle of a street. A group of small boys in sandals pushed mud-caked tires down a dirt road in the poor Sadr City district.
In the “triangle of death,” where voting is a life-threatening experience, Karfia Abbasi held up her ink-stained finger, elated that for the first time she has been able to cast a ballot for someone besides Saddam Hussein.
“This is democracy,” Abbasi said. “This is the first day I feel freedom.”
For U.S. Marines helping guard Sunday’s vote, the streams of men and women walking into the gritty polling places of this area south of Baghdad was a payoff more impressive than the toppling of Saddam’s statue in the capital during the fall of his regime in April 2003 — less spectacular but tougher to bring off.
Abed Hunni, a stooped, whiskered man walked an hour with his wife to reach a polling site in Musayyib. “God is generous to give us this day,” he said.
Cpl. Florian Gonzales of Norwalk, Conn., looked on from the sandbagged police station roof.
“Hopefully, what happens today reflects what we’ve been trying to do for the last seven months,” Gonzales said. “I don’t want anyone else to have to come back here and go through what we’ve been through.”
With helicopters flying low overhead and occasional gunfire ringing out close by, at least 200 voters stood calmly in line outside a polling station by midday in the heart of Baghdad.
Inside, women waited in embroidered black abayas and jeans. Men wore Arab dress, some were in track suits and sneakers and others in the traditional baggy trousers of Iraq’s Kurdish region. Arabic, Kurdish and Turkomani — three of Iraq’s main languages, were spoken.
An Iraqi army soldier, his ski mask and camouflage fatigues giving him a fearsome look, helped a woman in a wheelchair reach her assigned polling station.
An electoral volunteer escorted a blind man back to his nearby home after he cast his vote.
“It has been a long and hard assignment for me,” said policeman Abbas Saedi, a veteran of 23 years in the force who earns $190 a month.
“We fought terrorists who took shelter in a cemetery behind the polling center, we captured some and found weapons hidden in graves. It was all worth it. This is great.”
In Saddam Hussein’s hometown, the deposed leader’s Sunni brethren mostly shunned the polls.
They live in the shadow of his palaces, which fill a sprawling complex on the Tigris River that American forces bombed and then seized.
There are perhaps few other places in Iraq where Sunnis feel the loss of their privilege and prestige more than in Tikrit, a city that Saddam rewarded with plentiful electricity and clean streets — rarities in much of the rest of Iraq.
Perhaps nowhere else did the humiliation of seeing Saddam dragged from a dirt hole outside a farmhouse strike as deep.
Residents here who rejected the vote asked how they could trust any government that came to power in the shadow of an American occupation.
In this Shiite holy city, residents crowded outside polling sites an hour before they even opened. Some of them had to trek here on foot for three miles.
As expected, many people in Najaf were faithful to calls by the most influential Shiite cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who said every man and woman had the religious duty to vote.
Leaders here underestimated the numbers of voters and hadn’t brought in enough buses to deliver people to the polls. A young boy led an elderly man, painfully plodding along, by the hand.
But when people finally got to ballot booths, it was as if they had reached the end of one of the pilgrimages to the city’s holy shrines.
Crowds burst into impromptu demonstrations, shouting, “No to dictatorship. Yes to democracy,” and “Long live freedom.”
After dark, men crouched on the ground and counted ballots by the glow of an oil lamp because of a power outage.