Sunnis Take Stock After Iraqi Elections

Sunni Arabs in the northern city of Mosul ponder the future in the wake of Thursday's parliamentary elections. Sunni-based political parties contested the vote for the first time, and Sunnis went to the polls in large numbers.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Iraq's Sunni Arabs voted in large numbers this week in parliamentary elections, raising expectations that at least some branches of the Sunni-led insurgents here are moving toward political participation, not rebellion. In the largely Sunni city of Mosul in northern Iraq, voter turnout was especially heavy. Many people there seemed to hope that election results will bring real change. From Mosul, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

The ballot counting is expected to take at least two weeks. The likely political power struggle ahead to form a new government could take far longer. But Friday, in a Sunni neighborhood of western Mosul, the mood was upbeat. Voter Absta Hamid(ph).

Mr. ABSTA HAMID (Voter): (Through Translator) And we really hope the situation gets better now, safer. We prepared for the elections and so many came out to vote. Thank God nothing bad happened.

WESTERVELT: More Sunnis will take part in running things now, he says. But asked whether he thinks the large Sunni turnout will encourage some Sunni insurgents to lay down their weapons or stop planting bombs, Hamid dances around the question. `Sunnis aren't the only ones who've taken up arms,' he says defensively.

A long, hard rain washed over Mosul late Thursday after the polls had closed. One resident saw it as a blessing. `It washed us clean,' he said. Nearby, a middle-age voter with a thin mustache didn't want his name used but was forthcoming with his opinion. He hopes the election results help improve security and speed up the departure of US soldiers.

Unidentified Man: (Through Translator) We hope American forces can now go home to their families and let us rule our country and decide our own destiny. So we hope they establish a new Iraqi government as quickly as possible.

WESTERVELT: `We have the resources. We're a rich country,' he adds, referring to Iraq's oil fields. `And the factional tensions,' he says, `need to be tackled head on when the new government is formed.'

Unidentified Man: (Through Translator) I hope we get a new parliament that secures the Iraqi people's future, not a government that favors one sect over another. We have many different ethnic and religious groups--Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Turkmen--that make up Iraq. We need a united government to serve all those interests.

WESTERVELT: Preliminary and unofficial returns from Iraq's second-largest city showed the two main Sunni slates doing very well here, according to two officials with the Iraqi electoral commission. Early indications are that Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, also did well in this Sunni-majority city. According to the electoral officials, the Kurdish minority came in about in line with its population numbers.

(Soundbite of children playing)

WESTERVELT: An election week ban on all car traffic and an expanded curfew were still in place here until this morning. On Friday, kids took to the streets, knocking around soccer balls; men packed tea houses to smoke and play dominos.

(Soundbite of tea house activity)

WESTERVELT: Mosul is a city where stretches of calm are often punctuated by spasms of intense violence. Like many of the American soldiers who daily patrol Mosul's streets, Army Captain Johnny Sutton(ph) sees the election as a positive step.

Captain JOHNNY SUTTON (US Army): You know, just to keep pushing us forward, keeping the momentum going towards the greater goal of, you know, eventually pulling out and getting Iraq up and running on its own feet.

WESTERVELT: Whether the election fallout will accelerate a drawdown of US forces remains unclear. Under the most optimistic Pentagon planning scenarios, more than 100,000 US troops will likely remain in Iraq through 2006. Captain Sutton, walking down a soggy Mosul street, counsels patience for what he says will be a long haul.

Capt. SUTTON: It may calm down for a while, but you still need to get the Iraqi army and the IPs up. I know they've made vast improvements and it won't be long, I don't believe, until they're ready to take over for themselves. But we still got some work to do.

WESTERVELT: More work preparing Iraqi police and army forces whose performance by all accounts has improved this year after a series of spectacular and deadly failures in 2004. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Mosul.

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