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JEFFREY BROWN: John Burns, welcome. Remind us first briefly what exactly were people voting for today, and how did it work with these so-called “lists of candidates?”
JOHN BURNS: Well, this is the third election this year, or the third opportunity that Iraqis have had to vote. The first as you recall was in January for a transitional government.
The second occasion was in October for a constitution that was drafted by a committee of the parliament elected in January.
The third occasion, today, was for a parliament that will choose a full-term four-year government. This is for keeps, if you will: 275 seats at issue. 288 competing party lists; results not expected probably for two weeks; and the formation of a government from those results perhaps not for as much as three maybe even four months.
JEFFREY BROWN: So we’re hearing about high turnout in many parts of the country. What have you and your colleagues seen on the ground today?
JOHN BURNS: Well, I think the two most notable elements in today’s voting were, number one, the extraordinarily high turnout amongst Sunni Arabs who had boycotted the elections in January. I think the turnout then was in the range of 3 percent.
Today we were seeing turnouts of 70 — even 80 percent in some hard-line Sunni areas in Baghdad. And that was replicated, I believe, in other Sunni towns across the country, though not entirely in the Anbar Province, the heart of the insurgency, to the west of Baghdad where there were security problems. So the Sunni turnout was one remarkable element.
The other one was the very low level of violence compared with the January election and, indeed, with the referendum in October. To give you a benchmark, in January there were over 300 attacks, on Jan. 30, the day of the election, the highest number of attacks by the insurgents of any day of the war, and over 100 of those were on polling stations. And there were scores of people killed.
Today there were only 52 attacks, lower than the average daily number of attacks recorded by the American command on non-election days, and of those, only 18 attacks on polling stations, and as far as we now know, none of those fatal.
So this election with over 6,000 polling stations, perhaps as many as ten or eleven million voters turning out was conducted in what, for Iraq, was an extraordinary atmosphere of calm.
JEFFREY BROWN: Let me follow up on the question of what happened in the Sunni areas today. Are officials and election officials there surprised by the turnout? And have you and your colleagues been able to talk to people about why they came out this time after, as you said they boycotted largely the last election?
JOHN BURNS: Well, to answer the first part of your question, surprised somewhat. They had been very hopeful that something like this would occur. Delighted is probably an understatement. This is a turn in the political process that American diplomats and American military commanders had been hoping for, for a very long time.
It would have been seen quite illusionary only a few months ago to think that you could have had a turnout of this kind. Why is it so important — because the insurgency is, as you know, rooted in the Sunni Arab minority who were usurped — if you will — as the power holders in Iraq by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
What does it mean? Well, I spent a good deal of my day in Adamiya, which is as hard line a Sunni area as you will find in Baghdad, just about three miles north of where I’m sitting now. And the striking thing to me was how reasonable the expression of views was. My conclusion was that that reasonableness of intent of expression has probably been there all along amongst the sort of people who turned out to vote today, ordinary middle class Sunnis and their families.
What was lifted was the intimidation. Even the al-Qaida insurgent groups never said they were going to attack this election. They issued a statement from Cairo denouncing the elections but not specifically saying they were going to attack. The Baathists, Saddam Hussein-related insurgent groups, went a little further than that and said they would not attack election targets.
Sunni imams in the mosques across the Sunni heartland and the leaders of the Sunni political parties that competed called for large turnout; they got it. My reading amongst the mood of the Sunnis who voted was that what they want is well within the reach of what the American command here, the American diplomats, feel should be offered to them over the next several months as a new government is formed.
JOHN BURNS: They want an American military withdrawal, but as I heard it expressed today they don’t want it to be precipitous, I’m talking about the Sunni Arabs now. They want it to be staged so that political stability here is created.
I said to one man, it sounds very much as though you have been listening to President Bush. And he laughed and he said, Bush’s formula would be fine with us — so a major, major turn here.
The question now is: Can it be sustained? Can Sunni hopes be fulfilled in the negotiations for a new government and in the renegotiation of the constitution that was passed in October, which has been so profoundly unpopular amongst Sunnis?
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, John Burns of the New York Times, thanks for joining us again.
JOHN BURNS: It’s a pleasure.