In mostly Sunni province, many voters stay home

THE BALTIMORE SUN

RAMADI, Iraq - Fear of insurgent attacks and a call by Sunni Muslim clerics to boycott the elections prevailed in the turbulent Anbar province yesterday as most voters stayed at home despite U.S. promises to protect those who showed up to cast ballots.

Unofficial figures from the province showed that about 17,000 of as many as 250,000 eligible voters in Anbar participated in the first national election since a U.S.-led coalition deposed Saddam Hussein. The mostly Sunni province is home to the restive cities of Ramadi and Fallujah.

"Most people were afraid to vote," said Shakir Ali Jawad, an election official at Polling Place No. 1 in Ramadi, the provincial capital.

But there were other reasons. A professor who lives a block from a polling place said he did not plan to vote because the Shiite majority would make sure that politicians favoring Iran are elected.

'No part of it'

"Iraq will become part of Iran after this," he said. "I want no part of it."

And Mohammed Hamadi, a laborer, said that voting was against the Quran, particularly because it treats female voters as equals.

"It is wrong to do this," he said, nodding toward the polling place at a run-down elementary school.

Unofficial figures showed that 1,700 people voted in Ramadi, a city of nearly 400,000; 8,000 in Fallujah, half the size of Ramadi; and about 5,000 in neighboring Nassar Wa Alsalaam, a mostly agricultural community.

The remaining votes came from smaller towns in the vast province that stretches from west of Baghdad to the Syrian, Jordanian and Saudi border.

In Fallujah, where the United States mounted an offensive in November to wrest control from insurgents, polling places were opened at centers where residents whose homes were devastated by the offensive have been receiving food, water and cash payments. But that did little to boost turnout.

In Ramadi, the location of polling places was kept secret until days before the election.

U.S. officials had stated that a successful election in Ramadi was critical to the bid by an Iraqi government to gain credibility.

Despite the low turnout, U.S. officials declared the election a success, noting the lack of major insurgent violence. In Ramadi, a roadside bomb exploded beneath an Army tank, a rocket-propelled grenade hit a Marine Humvee and a missile fired at the school housing Polling Place No. 1 landed harmlessly. No U.S. casualties were reported.

"The citizens of Al Anbar were afforded the opportunity to vote in a safe and secure environment," said Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division.

"Every citizen was able to make a choice, either to participate or not to participate," he said. "That decision, in itself, is a demonstration of freedom and democracy."

In the days leading to the election, insurgents circulated fliers warning residents not to vote and help the "infidels." The same message was spray-painted on walls.

On Saturday, insurgents reportedly telephoned potential voters, warning them to stay home.

'Only take so much'

"A man can only take so much fear," said Mahmoud Jolan, a businessman. "The Americans don't understand this. They cannot protect us forever."

At day's end, when election workers were being escorted by Marines back to the safety of a Marine compound, the jubilant attitude among them belied the low turnout.

"This has been a free election for a free country," said worker Falih Swadi Henoon, wearing a Los Angeles Raiders jacket.

In recent weeks, Marines detained dozens of suspected insurgents and captured numerous caches of weapons and explosives, some close to polling places. Marines said they felt some of the caches had been placed recently in anticipation of an attack.

"We've taken so many people, so many weapons, off the streets, that it would have to be severely crippling," said Capt. Ed Rapisarda, 33, of Vacaville, Calif.

By agreement with the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, the Marines did not enter the school because they didn't want to give credibility to Sunni clerics' claim that the election was merely a way to ensure that the government is run by "American puppets." So strict was the protocol that Marines who had set up the cardboard voting booths Saturday were careful not to touch the boxes of ballots.

Still, Marine snipers were on rooftops. Wire blocked off street access to the site to thwart suicide cars. Squads of combat Marines waited in homes surrounding the school.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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