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Reports on Iraq’s Election Day From Reporters in Basra, Sadr City and Baghdad

January 31, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: We launch our coverage of the Iraq elections with this report from Julian Manyon of Independent Television News.

JULIAN MANYON: In the sprawling Shiite slum called Sadr City, they are celebrating the first real vote for 50 years. They are also celebrating what they believe is the victory of their Shiite Party list.

These are the supporters of the United Iraqi Alliance, a mainly Islamic coalition inspired by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and there’s no doubt that they have done very well at the polls. At the Alliance’s headquarters they’re claiming a decisive lead over the other parties.

SA’AD QANDEE: In some areas, however, votes have exceeded 85 and 90 percent.

JULIAN MANYON: It’s these boxes of votes that will help to decide if the main Shiite alliance does indeed become the dominant force in Iraqi politics after years of Sunni control. This is the Shiite heartland of Basra where the votes have already been counted at the polling stations and will now be counted again. A final result will not come for up to ten days but already many are asking what the Shiites will do with their new political power.

JIM LEHRER: Next, to John Burns, the Baghdad bureau chief of the New York Times. Gwen Ifill talked with him by phone earlier this evening.

GWEN IFILL: John Burns, welcome back. In your coverage of the Iraqi Election Day, you described of meeting voters who seemed to be driven to the polls because they had a… what you describe as a “passion for self-expression.” Describe what you mean by that.

JOHN BURNS: Yes, it was in many ways the most wonderful aspect of our experience at the polls on Sunday. If you visited Iraq over the past 15 years, as I did, you observed the terrible psychological as well as physical bludgeoning of the Iraqi people by Saddam Hussein, one expression of which was an unwillingness, a kind of alienation from any sense of self-expression or self-assertion.

And the question that was raised after American troops arrived here in 2003, and increasingly as the situation here got worse with the insurgency, was whether the Iraqi people would ever find in themselves the will to stand up for themselves and to claim their own future for themselves — the point that American military commanders have repeatedly made to us and in public statements here.

Well, what we saw yesterday was the Iraqi people standing up. As important to those people at the polls as the choice of a particular political party or alliance was simply the fact that for the first time in their lives, they were able to make a choice for themselves about their futures and to count for something in the nation’s affairs.

GWEN IFILL: John, we had heard in advance of the expectations of violence and all the other deterrents to people actually showing up and voting. Based on your reporting, the people you talked to who were standing in line to vote, how did they overcome that?

JOHN BURNS: Well, I think many of them didn’t make up their minds whether to go or not until Election Day dawned. And indeed, many of them didn’t decide until quite a lot later. They sent kind of forage parties out. They sent a husband out ahead of them, for example, or a father, with a mobile phone.

One of the wisest things that the American command here did in the construction of the Iraqi government was to abandon quite late on a plan to shut down the entire mobile phone system here, which was one, if you will, of the benefits, the material, practical benefits of the American occupation of Iraq. They never had them before.

Well, they didn’t shut the phone system down. They kept it open, and that allowed people to send out somebody to take a look at just how risky it appeared to be, and then to phone back. So what happened was, in the first hours after the polls opened, there were just a trickle of voters, even in many of the stations in Baghdad.

But as the day wore on, those trickles turned to streams, and then they turned to floods in some places. Unhappily, some people just left it too late, and turned up at the polling stations just ahead of the witching hour, 5:00, when they closed down, only to find that they couldn’t vote. So as high as the turnout appears to have been, it could have been a lot higher had they agreed to extend the voting hours.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned earlier that people showed up to vote for the simple act of voting, not so much because of who they were there to vote for. Was there anyway to tell whether Shiites turned out to vote for Shiites, Sunnis to vote for Sunnis, Kurds for Kurds?

JOHN BURNS: Yes. And I’ll tell you something else. That was another of the inspiriting aspects of our experiences yesterday, and a reproving one, if you will. How many times did voters say to me — and I believe to many other reporters who began their interviews with them by asking them, as we so often do, are you Shiite, are you Sunni or are you Kurd — they would say to us, what is that to you? Why are you people so obsessed with that?

I must have heard that several dozen times yesterday — people who said, can’t you get it straight in your mind that we are Iraqis first, and then Sunnis or Shiites second? And this is really very interesting. There is a sense amongst Iraqis that Americans arrived here with an obsession about the ethnic breakdown of this country. Now, it is a reality, and it’s reflected in the insurgency.

But it was a point that was made to us insistently, even by those people who in their great numbers were voting for party number 169 on the list — which is the broad Shiite alliance, led by two religious groups, that is widely expected to gain an outright majority of the votes.

GWEN IFILL: What did voters say to you when you talked to them about the U.S. Presence, the U.S. Contribution, the U.S. influence in these elections? Did they seem moved by that at all?

JOHN BURNS: Well, that was another part of our education yesterday. It dawned on me after the first hour or two that the United States was only mentioned in our conversations if I raised it. When I did raise it with people, they would say — although usually somewhat reluctantly — that of course these elections could not have taken place without the invasion of 2003 and American troops.

But that was quickly followed by a lecture on all the things that have gone wrong since, which of course, you know, have been well chronicled here. But then I thought, as I reflected on this, well, this, too, is good news in a way. It doesn’t reflect so much a kind of lack of gratitude to the United States, as the simple fact that the process worked yesterday. It was about Iraqis making their own choices about Iraqi politicians.

The United States was physically removed from the process by reason of the troops being pulled back from the polling stations, one of the wisest things I think that American commanders here decided to do. And it was simply that America was no longer in the forefront of the consciousness of these people, and that has to be a very good thing. What they were celebrating was Iraqis deciding the future of Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: And finally, you must have spoken on the ground to either members of the U.S. military, the coalition forces, or officials on the ground here, who must be feeling some sort of vindication based on all the dire predictions about what would happen in this election.

JOHN BURNS: Well, they were. And I must say, I’m sure in the chow halls across the country today American troops were feeling a tremendous sense of satisfaction after all that they have gone through here. And I have also no doubt that in the command centers, stories written people like myself that had been posted, commanders would have taken a good deal of satisfaction.

I think that we… those of us who took a rather dire view of the possibilities of this election — not the election itself, but what might happen — have to say quite honestly that they got quite a lot about this right, and we got quite a lot about it wrong. They always said that we can do this.

They were fearful, of course, that there could be major insurgent actions. And there were. They were eight or nine suicide bombings in Baghdad alone. But they also said we can get this done, and you’ll see, there will be a very substantial turnout. Well, they were right.

GWEN IFILL: Well, John Burns, once again, thank you for watching it all for us.

JOHN BURNS: Not at all. It’s a pleasure, Gwen.