The Purple Finger of Democracy

Amidst the dilapidated remains of Saddam Hussein's one time symbol of power - the Ba'ath Party building in Baghdad's International Zone - sits Forward Operating Base (FOB) Union III, a heavily guarded military installation. The days begin early here, as Peruvian security patrols ready themselves for another busy day and military personnel and civilians stir to the pre-dawn call of the muezzin from a nearby mosque. As the sun rises, people can be seen scurrying from crevices in the blast walls that surround the residential trailers, on their way to duty stations at the American Embassy and at Freedom Towers, where the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) is located (and where I have been spending large portions of my days here). FOB Union III is scheduled to be renamed as the Embassy Annex, as it is located across the street from the massive new American Embassy Complex, referred to here as the NEC.

This particular weekend, as many Americans geared up for Superbowl XLIII, a jubilation of a different sort exists in Iraq. Amongst most servicemembers, excitement is still focused on the match between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers, but for the Iraqi populace, their provincial elections have taken pole position. The atmosphere was almost festive at the polling place we visited, located near the NEC. Dubbed the 215 apartments - allegedly because 215 was the address of the cluster of buildings at some point - the election booths were located inside a school nestled within the apartment complex. Having only been to American elections, this was the first one I'd seen where curly rolls of razor wire and AK-47s outnumbered campaign signs. However, the Iraqis, from the gun-toting guards to the voters themselves, were all smiles as person after person emerged with a purple finger - the ink-dipped digit serving as proof that one had already voted.

Due to attacks against polling stations in previous elections, security for this one was tight. Officially, my photographer, John Goodman - who has worked extensively in Israel and has already been in Iraq with the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion for a month - and I were supposed to have gotten special ID cards issued by the Iraqi Independent High Election Commission (IHEC) in order even to gain access to the neighborhood where the precinct was located. Saying I was from California was apparently good enough for the first Iraq Army guard, who grinned as he let us past the blockade into the neigborhood. It's very likely that a war can be won simply by showing reruns of Baywatch to enemy soldiers and then bringing up specific episodes and telling them you're from California as your attack. For some reason, there's something about California that's very endearing to other cultures. Those of us who live there know what it is, but it's interesting to gauge the interpretations of others based upon what they've seen of it on TV. "Aaahhh! California! Habbibi!"

A plethora of Iraqi Army troops and policemen stood guarding the gate to the school with AK-47s, M4s, and Uzis, and a smartly painted Humvee stood on display, its turret bristling with the well oiled barrel of a Squad Automatic Weapon (the Iraqi Army vehicles I had seen up until this point had looked more like hand-me-downs from the US Army). The word amongst State Department employees in the Provincial Reconstruction Team was that the tight security during election day increased voter confidence, the result of which was a reported turnout - according to IHEC - of 51 percent of all registered voters in Iraq. "The most important thing is safety, security, and freedom," said an Iraq Army officer in charge of security for polling at the 215 Apartments. "The other thing is that the different cultures - Shia, Sunni, and others - come together as one people. The people believe in this election and they come to vote. They believe that it is the right thing to do."

As John and I spoke with a soldier, an Iraqi man getting ready to enter the building to vote trotted up to offer his translation services. I was able to speak with the man's uncle, who, dressed in a long brown robe, was a muezzin at one of the local mosques. "It's 100 percent different [from the last election]. They fixed all the mistakes from before," said the uncle. "This election is like freedom. Every person can vote for who he likes." Speaking excitedly in Arabic, the uncle told me, through his English-speaking nephew, about the importance of this election; how different it was from the time of Saddam Hussein, when everyone's name was counted for a vote, but all votes were "cast" for Saddam.

Our translator, exuberant about the elections - brought us inside with him so that we could watch him vote. I really didn't know what to expect when we went into the room where the voting booths were and were approached by some election officials, but when they found out that we were with the American press, they were very excited to show us every detail of how they ran the election. "I'm very happy and very proud. All of the men and women are coming," said Amjad Omran, the IHEC polling station manager at 215 Apartments, pointing out that many of the voters were women. As voters entered the room to fill out their forms, Omran walked me step-by-step through their secure voting process, from the registration, to the layout of the forms, to the secure boxes zip tied by independent and international observers. IHEC reported that at the local level, nearly half a million observers were actively monitoring the elections at the polling places throughout Iraq.

Everyone, from Iraqi and international press agencies to IHEC and the United Nations, seemed pleased with the way the election was handled. At a press conference the next day, Qassim Al Abodi, IHEC's Chief Electoral Officer, called it "the most historic and decisive day in the history of our nation. IHEC is very pleased with the the turnout. Very rarely in other parts of the world do you get such high numbers in elections." A UN official reported that the UN was "extremely pleased" with the election and its lack of violent incidents.

Lieutenant Colonel Karl Berscheid, a Santa Maria native, is a Civil Affairs liason officer the elections from the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion, and said that part of the reason for high voter turnout is that Sunnis who boycotted the last election came out in force this time. Having worked in a Civil Affairs role during Iraq's 2005 election, Berscheid said that at that time, Sunnis thought Kurds were getting too much power, so many boycotted the election and turned to violence instead. What they found though, was that the Al Quaeda help they recruited for that purpose killed indiscriminately, and many of their own people fell victim to acts of terrorism. "You can't demand it by force of arms, but you can - through a representative constitution - gain a voice through the electoral process," he said.

The Provincial Reconstruction Team - a joint military and State Department organization - has been very involved as an advisory agency during preparations for the election, but the Iraqis themselves administered the election and provided security. Serving as liaisons between civilian agencies and military assets - such as communications and transportation equipment - vital to the election process, soldiers from Santa Barbara's 425th Civil Affairs Battalion were actively involved in election preparations as well. Berscheid said that their main role was one of coordination - effectively using military assets normally reserved for combat objectives for civilian ones, and ensuring a credible and legitimate election outcome.

Overall, the election seems to have been a resounding success, but a few concerns were raised about minor procedural issues, such as the number of internally displaced people who were able to vote and allegations of election fraud in a couple of provinces. Despite those concerns, the general tone from IHEC and the UN was that these were very minor problems that can be fixed. One issue that hasn't received much attention was the abstention from the provincial elections by the Kurdish-controlled northernmost provinces. Sulemania, Erbil, and Dahuk are part of the Kurdish semi-autonomous region, but Tamin Province, where oil rich Kirkuk is located, is not. Kurds currently control this area and its oil resources, but there has been speculation that if Sunni voters flocked to the poles as they did in the rest of the country, that balance could be upset.

With this round of elections over, Iraqis look forward to their national elections, which should be held sometime in the fall. It can only be hoped that the major advances that have been made over the past several years will continue to hold, leading to another successful election. Asked what he hoped this election meant for his country's future, the brown-robed muezzin at the polling site said as he stroked his chin with a purple finger, "We would first like peace. Then, speaking about the future for our children, good water and being able to speak freely."

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