Iraqi Voters Defy Insurgents in Historic Election

Iraqis anxiously await the results of a historic election that drew voters out in greater-than-expected numbers, defying insurgents who killed 35 people in a failed campaign to torpedo the poll.

As praise poured in from around the world, election workers raced to count ballots by hand — in some cases by candlelight because of widespread power outages — to decide the outcome of Iraq’s first multi-party vote in nearly half a century.

Up to 8 million Iraqis, some ululating with joy, others hiding their faces in fear, cast ballots across the country on Sunday as guerrilla attacks proved less ferocious than anticipated in the face of a massive security crackdown.

But in parts of the Sunni Arab heartland, where the insurgency has been bloodiest and several parties called for a boycott, polling stations were empty.

President Bush hailed the election as a “resounding success.” He had looked to the vote as a turning point in the troubled 22-month U.S. military presence in Iraq, hoping it would unite Iraqis and quell a raging insurgency.

But the election, all but certain to bring Iraq’s long- oppressed Shi’ite majority to power, risks alienating Iraq’s once-privileged Sunni Muslim minority and fomenting sectarian strife, further delaying any U.S. withdrawal.

Officials expect preliminary poll results in six to seven days and final results in about 10 days.

Al Qaeda’s Iraqi wing had declared war on the “infidel” polls, threatening an election day bloodbath.

But most Iraqis were undeterred.

Samir Hassan, 32, who lost his leg in a car bomb blast last year, said as he waited to vote in Baghdad: “I would have crawled here if I had to. I don’t want terrorists to kill other Iraqis like they tried to kill me.”

Still, hardly anyone expected Sunday’s election to drain the strength from a raging insurgency in which attackers have often seemed to strike at will, killing thousands of Iraqis since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in April 2003.

Bush said the election showed Iraqis refused to be intimidated. “The Iraqi people have firmly rejected the anti-democratic ideology of the terrorists,” he said.

Despite tight security imposed by the U.S.-backed interim government, militants launched suicide bombings and mortar attacks aimed at scaring away voters.

They struck mainly in Baghdad, rocking the capital with nine suicide blasts. Streets were barricaded, borders sealed, airports closed and only official vehicles allowed out.

Al Qaeda’s network in Iraq, led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility for the attacks.

But election officials said the turnout had still surpassed expectations. They originally put it at 72 percent but later backtracked, saying possibly 8 million had voted, or just over 60 percent of registered voters.

The government had set a target of at least 50 percent of Iraq’s 13 million registered voters as the barometer of success.

With foreign monitors mostly staying away for fear of kidnapping, it was impossible to assess the fairness of the election or accuracy of the turnout estimates.

But edging toward an international stamp of approval, Carlos Valenzuela, the U.N.’s electoral adviser in Iraq, said he was encouraged by early indications.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan assured Iraq of further U.N. help in drawing up a constitution, a process which he said must include all those who were unable or unwilling to cast a ballot.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush’s chief ally in the Iraq war, said the election was a blow to global terrorism.

He praised British troops — about 10 and possibly as many as 15 — killed when a Hercules transport plane came down near Baghdad. Details were sketchy but it was the costliest incident for the British armed forces in two years of fighting in Iraq.

While Bush, Blair and others made links between their own military commitments and the success of the election, European governments which opposed the 2003 invasion, notably France and Germany, confined their praise to the courage of Iraqis.

A Shi’ite alliance formed under the guidance of top cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was almost certain to win the most votes for a 275-seat parliament that will pick Iraq’s new leaders. Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite, could be consensus candidate to stay in office.

As the vote count proceeded, however, there was concern that an apparently low turnout among Iraq’s 20 percent Sunni minority could damage the credibility of the first post-Saddam election.

Voters created an almost festive atmosphere in Shi’ite areas and the northern regions where Kurds, who make up nearly a fifth of Iraqis, are looking to the vote to enshrine their autonomous rule. But many Sunnis stayed home.

In Samarra, streets were largely deserted and fewer than 1,400 ballots were cast by a population of 200,000. “Nobody came. People were too afraid,” said Madafar Zeki, in charge of a polling center in the mostly Sunni city.

By the end of the day in Baghdad, voters were rushing to get to polling stations before they closed, including some old women helped along by young boys.