On the Sunni side

From the besieged Sunni triangle, the glowing portrait of the Iraqi election doesn't hold.

By David Axe

Published February 1, 2005 1:40PM (EST)

At 9 a.m. on Jan. 30 in the Shiite town of Kanan, near this provincial capital in the Sunni triangle, the only living things on the streets were hungry wild dogs. At the city's heavily fortified polls -- which had been open for two hours -- Iraqi police stood smoking cigarettes behind concrete and barbed-wire barriers, waiting for the voters they knew would never come.

Immediately after the Iraqi elections, conventional wisdom from the media has called the voting an unqualified success because millions turned out despite attacks and threats. Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi declared the day's events a defeat for terrorists. But a closer look at towns like Kanan and Baquba reveals underlying failures that are likely to grow into serious problems in the near future. Chief among them: The Sunni turnout in the most volatile regions of Iraq was predictably low, perhaps as low as 30 percent versus more than 75 percent for Shiites and Kurds. And in some towns, there was no turnout at all, Sunni or otherwise.

In Kanan, there was a tension in the air, the kind of atmosphere veteran American soldiers recognize as a community bracing for an insurgent attack. The average Iraqi knows a lot more about the comings and goings of insurgents than most authorities let on. Before many attacks, people shutter their shops, close their drapes and pull their children off the street.

There was a loud crack and a puff of smoke -- a rocket exploded on the rooftop of a building next door to a polling site. A near miss, but this is what residents were waiting for, and the reason they weren't at the polls.

Despite promises to leave election security to native forces, American troops rushed to the scene. They discovered several bombs in streets leading to the polls and destroyed them with C-4 explosives. One child ventured into the street near a rusting playground, only to dart inside seconds before an explosion.

In Baquba, where Shiites and Kurds lined up to vote at the city's 22 polls, an insurgent mortar team fired several rounds. An American mortar at Camp Gabe -- where Task Force 82 of the 1st Infantry Division is based -- fired back. Col. Dana Pittard, the brigade commander overseeing TF-82, was touring Baquba with an entourage of staffers and reporters when a firefight broke out at one poll. Pittard and other Americans evacuated election workers and a handful of voters and shut down the poll. Later, eating plates of tacos at Gabe, Pittard and his staff laughed and compared the evacuation to a dramatic rescue of American nationals from some distant war-torn land. Then they discussed raiding the abandoned poll's stash of ballots and taking them to another poll that for some reason had no ballots at all.

Later, after polls had closed at 5 p.m., a patrol from TF-82's Bravo Company received radio reports from election officials. There were 3,000 voters at one Baquba poll, 2,500 at another; overall turnout in the area hovered at around 75 percent of all registered voters. "We can't even get that many people to show up at [our] elections," said Pvt. 1st Class Andrew Ballast, 20.

But registered voters accounted for only around half of Baquba's 150,000 to 200,000 eligible voters, and most of those voters who did turn out were Shiites and Kurds. Despite a provincewide exception to an anti-election fatwa issued by Sunni clerics, most of Baquba's Sunnis stayed home, and so did many Shiites in besieged towns like Kanan.

Of the relatively few Sunnis who did vote, many are students and other moderates who aren't swayed by fatwahs or extremist politics. Firas and Mohamed, two Sunnis waiting at a highway checkpoint, say they voted for Allawi's party because he's a secular leader -- like Hussein was. "I like Saddam, I like Allawi. I love Iraq," Firas says in halting English. Both he and Mohamed refuse to give their last names.

"How long America go in Iraq?" Mohamed asks.

I shrug and say, "Years."

"No, days," Mohamed says.

Looking ahead, the implications are grave. Iraq is increasingly fractured and decreasingly secure. Policing is handled almost entirely by Americans, who are growing tired of back-to-back, yearlong deployments. There will be a new Iraqi government. It will be Shiite, and it will eventually ask U.S. forces to leave. Who will keep order when Sunnis inevitably resist a government they see as illegitimate?

David Axe

David Axe is a reporter for Free Times in Columbia, S.C., embedded with TF-82 in Baqubah, Iraq.


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