Election Day on the Euphrates
Democracy vs. Zarqawi.
Dec 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 15 • By BILL ROGGIO
On Election Day last week, the atmosphere in the Triad was quite different. In the city of Barwana, with a population of approximately 20,000, voters showed up in droves. The process was more or less orderly, and no one was harassed for participating. I observed all this as an embed with Lima Company of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, the unit assigned to ensure the security of the city in conjunction with the Iraqi Army.
The polling site in Barwana was on the Euphrates River, between hills and a teeming palm grove, a welcome site in the land of deserts. The voting center was easy to secure as well as accessible to the residents. But there seemed to be a hidden meaning behind its placement. The voting center sat directly beneath the recently destroyed Barwana bridge, where Zarqawi terrorists had routinely executed residents. And the building itself used to be the headquarters of the local Baath party. If there was a message here, it was this: The old order is dead, and a new government has replaced the repressive regimes that once dominated the Triad and Iraq.
Turnout was heavy. During the referendum on the Constitution in October, about 2,300 total votes were cast in the city. Today, the polls opened at 7 a.m., and Iraqis immediately lined up to vote. By 8:30 a.m., the lines snaked up the street. At the end of the day, it was estimated that over 5,000 ballots had been cast.
The overwhelming majority of voters were men. Only 47 women came to the polls. They brought their small children and babies, and were covered from head to toe in the traditional black dress of the region, with only their faces exposed, bearing exotic tattoos. The children were colorfully dressed and smiling, curiously looking at the Iraqi soldiers and U.S. Marines.
The women were searched by female Marines brought in specially for the election. Several of the Iraqi women struck up friendly conversations with the Marines, and many photographs were taken with the women of both countries and the children of Iraq (see photograph on page 7).
The male residents of Barwana were subjected to several security searches, which were the exclusive responsibility of the Iraqi soldiers. The Iraqi unit was made up of a newly formed battalion, and the recruits were pretty green. Curious about the interaction of the soldiers and citizens, and potential conflicts between the Sunnis and Shiites or Kurds, I asked the Iraqi soldiers where they were from. The vast majority hailed from Shiite regions.
The Iraqi soldiers patted down voters and scanned them with hand-held metal detectors. I observed some good-natured ribbing between the voters and soldiers, with what appeared to be jokes about checking under the men's headdresses and the need to search a little more closely the bellies of some overweight voters. No Sunni-Shiite hatred surfaced in my presence.
By mid-morning, there was a rush of voters, which caused logistical problems inside the polling center. As a significant portion could not read or write, they required assistance with their ballots. The impression among some impatient voters and some of the military observers was that poll workers were not moving quickly enough. Heated disagreements broke out between the poll workers, city councilmen, and some voters. There was pushing, shoving, and shouting, and a press of bodies towards the entrance into the voting center.
An Iraqi soldier fired several rounds in the air in an attempt to deffuse the situation. It worked, but the gunfire came at a cost. A few voters angrily left the courtyard, and one of the council leaders attempted to barricade those remaining. Some voters in line outside the building fled for fear of violence, but the majority of those inside and outside the building remained, awaiting their turn.
Captain Shannon Neller, commander of Lima Company, ordered water, which belonged to the Marines and Iraqi troops, to be distributed to the Iraqis waiting to vote. As there were many older men and young children in line, and the day had grown warm under the late morning sun, the gesture was greatly appreciated. As Marines and Iraqi soldiers stepped through the razor wire and handed out bottles to the smiling and grateful crowd, good will was reestablished.