RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
They're still counting the votes in Iraq, from the elections earlier this month, but officials have confirmed the turnout - more than 60 percent of registered voters cast ballots. That's important, especially in Iraq's Sunni-dominated provinces. The minority Sunnis boycotted previous elections during the violent insurgency. But now that Sunnis have voted, the question is how will they react if their candidates lose. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from Fallujah.
QUIL LAWRENCE: A car bomb struck Fallujah yesterday, right underneath a new highway overpass under construction. That's the unfortunate mixed message of Sunni-dominated Anbar province these days: It's finally safe enough to rebuild and improve people's lives, but there are still violent incidents several times a month.
It's sometimes hard to discern the exact motive, says Brigadier General Ken Tovo, who commands the U.S. troops that still remain in Anbar.
Brigadier General KEN TOVO: (United States Army): One of the challenges out in Anbar is to identify when a violent event happens is it of a political nature? Is it inter-tribal violence, score settling, if you will? Or is it truly terrorist activity?
LAWRENCE: But Tovo was quick to point out that with minimal U.S. assistance, Iraqi soldiers and policemen kept last week's elections safe. No one was killed across the province.
Now with the returns trickling in, Tovo was optimistic that Sunnis in Iraq want to solve their problems peacefully.
Brig. Gen. TOVO: Clearly, we're worried about bad losers in the process. But that's just the nature of being a military man. Certainly we saw that out of the provincial elections last year when parties didnt do well. Most of them took the opportunity to reassess their strategy and figure out how to do better in the national elections.
LAWRENCE: Unofficial results indicate that Sunni provinces voted for a coalition led by secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, joined by many prominent Sunnis, including the former director of Fallujah's hospital.
After past boycotts in the past, Sunnis will finally pick their leaders in Baghdad. But no one in Fallujah was celebrating.
Sheik AIFAN AL-ISSAWI (Founding Member, Awakening Movement): The Sunni in Iraq, I think they will stay weak for a couple of years.
(Soundbite of a baby)
LAWRENCE: Sheik Aifan al-Issawi is the leader of the tribal Awakening in Fallujah. A few years ago, he turned away from insurgency and joined U.S. troops to push al-Qaida out of Anbar. His youngest daughter wriggles in his lap as he talks about the recent elections. Leftover campaign posters show the sheik in a white robe with a belt of ammunition across his shoulder.
Aifan acknowledges Sunnis are a minority, but he says they will be included in the next government.
Sheik AL-ISSAWI: I am sure, (unintelligible), Iraq will be safe, will be safer soon. We work very hard. Few groups attacked us, attacked the good people. But I am sure we have the power to make security, to make peace, and we don't care about those people. I don't care. If I am sure they will kill me, I don't care.
LAWRENCE: It's not idle chatter. Aifan has survived two assassination attempts in the past few months. And just last week, his enemies killed three of his bodyguards, decapitating one of them. Still, he says, it's no comparison to a few years ago.
(Soundbite of horns honking)
LAWRENCE: It was at this restaurant, Haji Hussein Kebab, in 2004, that the defiance in Fallujah turned to open warfare against the Americans and the Iraqi state.
This is where a mob killed four American contractors. Later that year, U.S. forces took the city street by street. This restaurant was one of hundreds of buildings bombed to rubble in the assault. The owner, Muhammad Haji Hussein, lost two sons in the bombing, but he says that's in the past.
Mr. MUHAMMAD HAJI HUSSEIN (Owner, Haji Hussein Kebab): (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: The days of violence are gone forever, he says. But, Hussein adds, that residents of Fallujah are not prepared to give up their rights, or let others steal their share of Iraq's wealth. There's some doubt in his voice, though, as if he might suspect that theft is already under way.
(Soundbite of conversations)
LAWRENCE: But business is brisk though, with the famous lamb kebabs going on the grill about three dozen at a time. A fan on the charcoal throws sparks like a forge, and most of the tables are full.
Suhaib Munaim, who owns a dairy in Fallujah, is out for lunch. He says his business is doing well but he's not optimistic about politics.
Mr. SUHAIB MUNAIM (Dairy Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: Munaim says he tried to vote on election day, but soldiers stopped him on the way to the polls. When he told them he was voting for a popular Sunni, they blocked his way. He believes that the Americans are trying to impose sitting Prime Minister Maliki, and that his votes won't make any difference.
None of the dozen interviewees in Fallujah said they would be willing to go back to violence, but most seemed resigned. One quoted an Iraqi proverb: "If you're hunting a rabbit, take a rabbit. If you want a gazelle, take a rabbit. It's all you're going to get."
Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
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