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Fear and hope collide as Iraq braces for vote

Many head to polls despite violence and boycott calls

BAGHDAD -- Despite renewed attacks on polling places yesterday and continued calls to boycott today's elections, Iraqis lined up this morning to cast ballots for a National Assembly that will begin to put an Iraqi stamp on political and security decisions shaped by the US occupation since the American invasion nearly two years ago.

The country remained in a state of suspense and braced for more violence as a mortar slammed into the US Embassy in the capital's heavily fortified Green Zone, killing an American civilian and a sailor and wounding five.

A suicide bomber killed eight Iraqis in a town near the Iranian border, and a US soldier died in a roadside bombing west of Baghdad.

Early this morning, explosions reverberated around the capital as Iraqis headed to the polls.

Blasts were also reported in Baqubah to the northeast, Basra in the south, Mosul in the north, and a US air base in the northern city of Kirkuk.

About an hour and a half after polls opened, the capital was hit with a series of explosions that for one 15-minute period seemed nonstop, the booms appearing to have the thud of mortars. A suicide car bomber struck a polling center in western Baghdad, Iraqi TV reported. A police officer reportedly died in the attack, which came hours after a rocket struck the US Embassy compound inside the Green Zone.

Interim Iraqi President Ghazi Ajil Yawer, a Sunni Muslim who at one point expressed reservations about the timing of the vote, was one of the first Iraqis to cast his ballot in front of television cameras at a VIP polling center inside the Green Zone. Yawer called the election ''our first step toward joining the free world."

In normally busy commercial areas of the capital, US and Iraqi troops patrolled in force on streets so empty that children played soccer in the middle of major avenues.

But Iraqis from all walks of life, from all regions, and all sects, are already giving voice to new expectations for the country's first post-Saddam Hussein government that will be elected, rather than selected by the United States.

''Society should change. A lot of people will be unhappy if nothing changes," said Adil Abdel-Mahdi, a consummate insider politician currently serving as finance minister and considered a serious prime minister candidate. ''The new government will look different."

What's still in doubt, however, is whether the day-to-day governance of Iraq will improve. Since the US invasion in March 2003, such basic services as electricity and water have continued to erode in many areas, and violence has spread to nearly every province despite the efforts of 150,000 US troops and 125,000 Iraqi security forces.

American officials have labored to lower the public's expectations of the election. They said in interviews that any election and any turnout will be a success and the first step in a long process.

''There is going to be violence on Election Day, but millions of Iraqis are going to vote," said the top American military officer in Iraq, General George Casey.

US troop levels wouldn't change, he said, until the country becomes more peaceful and Iraqi security forces reach a higher level of competence.

''It's not just the get-out-of-Dodge plan," Casey told reporters the week before the election.

Iraqi leaders, however, are beginning to feel new pressure.

Until now, Iraqis have been keenly aware that Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's interim government was appointed by the US occupation authority and was bound by the Transitional Administrative Law drawn up under its chief, L. Paul Bremer III, a legal blueprint they were prohibited from changing.

The National Assembly elected today, however, will not only have the authority to change laws and appoint a new Cabinet, it also will have the responsibility of writing a new constitution.

Long-deferred issues will finally have to be resolved: Islam's level of influence over the legal system; the status of the disputed multiethnic city of Kirkuk; the division of oil revenues; and finally, and perhaps most contentiously, the debate over federalism.

And some Iraqis hope the election will mean a less visible US presence.

''Hopefully after the election, the American tanks will withdraw to their bases and only Iraqi tanks will be in the streets," said Sergeant Imad Salman Ali, 42, who set up a traffic checkpoint yesterday with a platoon of Soviet-made Iraqi tanks flying Iraqi flags, a rare sight.

How Iraqis feel about the election, and what they expect to change afterward, largely depends on where they live.

In the Shi'ite south, and the Shi'ite areas of Baghdad such as Sadr City and Kadhimiya, the majority of Iraqis interviewed said they plan to vote. Most voiced a belief that Shi'ite Muslims would finally take their fair share of political power; they make up the majority, about 60 percent, of the population but have been marginalized in every government since 1921.

''It is so important that we hold these elections," said Sa'ad Abid, 24, a Shi'ite who drives a taxi in Sadr City. ''This is the beginning of the end of the old, bad era, and the beginning of a new optimistic future."

Repeating a position of the Shi'ite leadership, he said that Iraqis who boycotted the vote were to blame if they later felt excluded. ''Those who don't vote will end up being the losers," Abid said.

The Kurdish north, meanwhile, has its own agendas. The three provinces that contain about 20 percent of the population have functioned as a virtually independent republic since 1991, when the United States gave the area special military protection from Hussein.

With nearly 14 years of politicking under their belts, the two major Kurdish parties have joined ranks and are expected to act as king-makers in the formation of the new government. They are expected to command a unified block with a clear set of demands: continued autonomy for the Kurdish region and an increased share of power in the federal government.

Iraq's Sunni heartland, and a large portion of Baghdad, however, have approached the election with a great dose of contempt and indifference.

Sunni Arabs in cities such as Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, Samarra, and Baqubah have declared the election an American-sponsored farce, and radical Sunni clerics were ordering followers through this past Friday's prayers that if they voted in the ''infidel election" they would have to answer to God.

The expected boycott parallels the Sunni Triangle's role as the center and engine of the insurgency for the last 21 months.

But many moderate Sunnis also appear to have rejected the electoral process.

At the Sayyid Mohammed Saleh al-Na'imi Mosque in Karada -- not a political center like some large mosques, but a Baghdad neighborhood hub in an area where Sunnis and Shi'ites lives side by side -- the imam didn't even mention the election.

The worshipers were unanimous: They will not vote in a ballot they believe has no relevance for them.

''Nothing will change in my life as long as the occupation is here," said Ali Moussa, 54. ''They call it multinational forces, but it is only Americans. They are destroying the country."

Of all the candidates, said Abdelhaq Ismail al-Ani, 34, ''There's no one I'd trust with my life."

An engineer who would give his name only as Abu Amar said the elections were marred because there is no public information available on the financial backing of political parties and individual candidates. ''Elections need transparency," he said.

He, too, insisted that elections would change nothing.

''The candidates are promising the people electricity. But this is the minimum that government should provide! This is not a campaign pledge!"

Iraqi officials have promised to invite Sunni leaders into the constitution-writing process even if they boycott today's vote.

Excluding the Sunnis, Iraqi and American leaders say, would further feed an insurgency that increasingly targets Shi'ites, Kurds, and moderate Sunni Arabs who support the new government.

The Shi'ite List slate of candidates is expected to run strongly, perhaps finishing with the greatest amount of votes.

But even if that group wins one-third of the seats in the assembly, as predicted by American officials and Islamic parties themselves, the internal struggle will begin over whether to make Iraq an Islamic state.

''The Shi'a for all this time have been a cohesive group . . . but any election brings out fissures," a senior coalition official said.

At Friday prayers in Sadr City, the imam, Nasir al-Saedy, was already looking ahead past the election, warning his congregation of 10,000 not to fall into the trap of thinking democracy meant adopting Western values.

''Islam says women are not supposed to show their beauty outside of the home," Saedy said. ''Look at all the women now leaving their homes nearly naked. The infidel West calls this open-minded."

In his sermon, he instructed ''true believers" to remember: ''It was God who liberated us from the tyrant [Saddam Hussein], not America."

Between now and December, the Transitional National Assembly will approve a new elected government, write a constitution, and pave the way for another national election in December to choose the new permanent government.

During that time, said an American official in Baghdad, Shi'ite political parties will have to resolve their internal debate over the role of Koranic influence in the government, Kurds will have to temper their independence movement, and Sunni Arabs will have to be accommodated.

''2005 is an incredibly charged political year here," the US official said on condition of anonymity. ''People are already positioning themselves for the next election."

Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

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