Cantwell: Iraqis excited about voting

To the sound of a large explosion near the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad where she was staying, Sen. Maria Cantwell headed out Thursday to visit polling sites as millions of Iraqis cast votes amid tight security.

Along with all women entering the polls, Cantwell, D-Wash., said she was searched by Iraqi forces looking for weapons and bombs.

Despite the threat of terrorist attack, Cantwell said the Iraqis she talked with were excited about the future.

“People are very positive,” Cantwell said during a conference call with reporters from Baghdad. “It is a proud day for them.”

Cantwell visited two polling sites, one in Baghdad and the other a 30-minute helicopter ride outside the capital in the largely Shiite city of Hillah, which has been the site of deadly car bombings. Women were searched because their clothing, including big, billowing, black head-to-toe coverings called abaya, could conceal bombs.

“There were no exceptions,” said Cantwell. “All women were searched. And the woman who searched me was very serious about it.”

Cantwell was one of four senators who were official election observers. Before visiting the polls, the senators met with U.S. Embassy officials and representatives of the Iraqi election commission.

At the polls, Cantwell said voters had to show identification and sign in before receiving their ballots.

“They look just like the precincts in Seattle or Portland,” Cantwell said, though adding that one difference was Iraqis had to stick their thumbs in ink when they were done so they couldn’t later vote at another site.

As for the possibility of fraud, Cantwell said the election system appeared to be a “very professional operation” that was well-planned.

As the senators departed for their first meetings of the day, Cantwell said a bomb exploded near the Green Zone, shaking the facility where they had gathered.

“It was a loud wake-up call,” she said.

Two civilians and one U.S. Marine were slightly injured. In general, the level of violence throughout Iraq on election day was reported low.

Roughly 10 million Iraqis were estimated to have voted, electing a new 275-member parliament. The Iraqis didn’t actually vote for specific candidates, but for tickets representing Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish and other factions.

The new parliament will form a new government, name a new prime minister and draft a final version of a constitution. The Bush administration hopes the elections will represent a turning point in the establishment of a democracy in Iraq and open the door for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops.

“To see the birth of a democracy anywhere in the world is exciting,” said Cantwell, who supported using force in Iraq.

Cantwell said the voters she spoke with indicated it was time Iraqis take more responsibility for running their country.

“There are going to be many tough days ahead, but this (the election) was an important political milestone for them,” she said.