Fallujah Residents Flock to the Iraqi Polls
ANNE GARRELS reporting:
This is Anne Garrels in Fallujah. Like most Fallujans, shop owner Hikmat Hussein(ph) had boycotted the national elections last January, but today he was one of the first to cast a ballot.
Mr. HIKMAT HUSSEIN (Voter): (Foreign language spoken)
GARRELS: Surrounded by buildings reduced to rubble, Hikmat said he had the sense the whole city was voting because people are tired of the situation. But the conversation was interrupted by a friend who said their neighborhood polling site had run out of ballots. His friend said this was a deliberate attempt by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad to stop Fallujans from taking part.
(Soundbite of activity at polling station)
GARRELS: Indeed, by noon there were no more ballots at the nearby Palestine Primary School. One election official said of 4,000 who had turned up to vote, 2,000 had to be turned away. City officials say there were problems at 11 of the 35 polling stations. Many voters said their names weren't on the rolls, and they said Anbar deserved more than nine of 275 seats assigned to the province in the new parliament. All this fueled anger at the government back in Baghdad.
Firefights broke out after the voting ended, but the voting itself was not disrupted by violence. Sixty-year-old Hatam Rashid(ph), an English teacher, was delighted to vote.
Mr. HATAM RASHID (Voter): There's a freedom in Iraq. It is a good freedom in Iraq. We are very happy to have freedom in Iraq, very, very, very happy.
GARRELS: City Council Chairman Sheik Kamal compared today to a wedding with too many guests. He said he had repeatedly warned the election commission people would turn out in huge numbers and more polling sites would be needed. Those who did cast their ballots appeared to vote for either of two Sunni coalitions who are calling for a withdrawal of US troops or for Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister. Though a Shiite and the man who authorized the US assault on Fallujah last November, some said they respected his toughness and believed he would be fair to all Iraqis regardless of their ethnic and religious background.
Again and again, Fallujans said they want a just government instead of the current one which they accuse of repressing the Sunni minority just as Saddam Hussein once repressed the Shiites. Amar Ahmed(ph) is a 27-year-old businessman. He voted for Sunni politician Salah Mutlak.
Mr. AMAR AHMED (Voter): (Through Translator) This is to decide our destiny. We can't leave it undecided.
GARRELS: Amar doesn't feel safe with the current government. He says a Shiite militia associated with one of the leading Shiite parties recently kidnapped two cousins, held them for 22 days and only released them when the family paid a $26,000 ransom.
To a person, every voter said US Marines should pull back to their bases on the outskirts of town. They differed, however, on how quickly the US troops should leave the country altogether, with most acknowledging the security situation here is not good enough for them to leave yet. But they don't want them in town and they want a timetable, an indication the US will eventually leave.
After being punished so dramatically in the past, Fallujans hope they'll be rewarded for taking part in the voting. They're hoping for more compensation to rebuild the ravaged city and a greater role in providing for their own security. If there's no improvement, if Sunni Arabs are not given a greater role in the army, Fallujans say the Iraqi resistance will continue and be justified in doing so. Anne Garrels, NPR News, Fallujah.
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