Everyone leads (online, at least) with Election Day in Iraq, where the turnout was unexpectedly high and the mood jubilant. As many as 8 million people, or almost 60 percent of eligible voters, cast ballots, sometimes within earshot of insurgents’ repeated mortar, rocket, machine gun, and suicide attacks, which proved less deadly than feared but still killed 44. “The election was a victory of our own making,” Iraq’s national security chief told the New York Times. “Today, the Iraqi people voted with their own blood.”
Or, put another way: “It’s like a wedding. I swear to God, it’s a wedding for all of Iraq,” the director of a polling station in a Sunni area of Baghdad told the Washington Post. “No one has ever witnessed this before. For a half-century, no one has seen anything like it. And we did it ourselves.”
According to the Post’s ambitious lead—which wraps together reporting from several staffers and 12 Iraqi stringers in eight cities—the battle-weary country “took on the veneer of a festival, as crowds danced, chanted and played soccer in streets secured by thousands of Iraqi and American forces.” Everyone notes that many voters ventured to the polls in their best clothes, often accompanied by their children, and returned proudly brandishing their indigo-stained fingers. In a Baghdad scene piece, the NYT’s John Burns writes, “Foreigners who have been visiting Iraq for 15 years and knew the tension that crackled under Mr. Hussein could remember no other day when the city, in wide areas, seemed so much at ease.”
And so it was a rare day in which, according to USA Today and the NYT, both Al Jazeera and Fox News broadcasted much of the same upbeat news. The newspapers, for their part, all post moving photo galleries.
Most of the papers say up high that voting in some Sunni areas exceeded the meager expectations. In one Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad, election officials told the WP that 1,500 of 2,500 residents made it to the polls. The Post implies that turnout in Sunni areas increased throughout the day as attacks turned out to be less deadly and widespread than advertised.
But the more you read, especially in the regional dispatches in the Los Angeles Times and WP, the more the Sunni story becomes mixed. While some small Sunni towns reportedly ran out of ballots because of unexpected demand, the LAT says only 1,700 votes were cast in the entire insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, a city of 400,000. (Apparently, insurgents telephoned some potential voters, warning them to stay home.) In Baji, the NYT’s lead says election workers didn’t bother to show up.
Meanwhile, in Sunni-majority melting pot Mosul, which has seen fierce fighting in recent months, the NYT and LAT say voters were lined up outside many polling stations, but a WP reporter who visited all of the poll sites in the city’s ravaged southeast quadrant only saw four voters over the course of the day. “Of course I want to vote; we all want to vote,” said one resident there, who was visited at home. “We waited 50 years for this. But everyone is afraid.” On a wall across the street, graffitti offered a warning: “Anyone who votes will be beheaded.”
By contrast, Kurds and Shiites voted in droves: In Irbil, two Kurdish women spent more than nine hours attempting to vote, after being turned away from several polling stations where the ballot boxes were full. And the NYT, WP, and LAT all file reports from the Shiite holy city of Najaf, where some 85 percent of eligible voters turned up at the polls.
The Wall Street Journal’s front-page story (subscription required) is, bizarrely, alone (as far as TP can see) in putting the casualty count in perspective by mentioning the total number of insurgent attacks yesterday: 175, well more than the recent average of 50 to 60, not that the U.S. makes these numbers public any more. Inside, the Journal also highlights the role of homegrown militias (sub. req.), such as the “Defenders of Baghdad Brigade,” in securing polling sites across the country. Many such groups began spontaneously springing up over the last month and U.S. forces decided to back them, outfitting some with weaponry and body armor. The NYT, for its part, fronts a story on the massive security effort that helped keep the deaths from mounting.
The WP has a separate, must-read story on the aftermath of a morning suicide bombing in an affluent section of Baghdad. Although the polling station initially closed, voters refused to go home. Some even volunteered to man an additional security perimeter, even “though this duty meant standing amid flecks of the flesh of the last officer who had the job.”
And all the editorial pages—boldly—come out in favor of democracy, while attempting to weave yesterday’s events into their respective master narratives. The WSJ clucks at liberals who it says opposed the election. The NYT rejoices in Iraqis’ courage but reserves “grave doubts about the overall direction of American strategy.” Meanwhile the WP distills a welcome moral to the story:
Yesterday, however, Americans finally got a good look at who they are fighting for: millions of average people who have suffered for years under dictatorship and who now desperately want to live in a free and peaceful country. Their votes were an act of courage and faith—and an answer to the question of whether the mission in Iraq remains a just cause.
Elsewhere in the world: The Israeli defense minister said yesterday that Israel is ready to hand over control of four West Bank cities to Palestinian security forces. Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas are set to meet on Feb. 8. … SBC Communications and AT&T have agreed to a deal in which SBC will likely buy its former parent for approximately $16 billion, creating the nation’s largest telecommunications company. … The WP reports that congressional Republicans have emerged from a weekend retreat with a confidential 104-page marketing plan for their partial privatization of Social Security, replete with focus-group-tested phrasing and a golden nest egg on the cover.
Please accept this label … The Post’s Al Kamen flags a direct-mailing sent out to potential supporters by the Alliance for Retired Americans, a group set up to oppose Social Security privatization. One such packet, sent to a man named Herbert Kaiser, was addressed as follows, (Kamen says he changed the street address to protect the man’s privacy):
Mr. Herbert Kaiser
201 Main Street
Palo Alto, CA
The complimentary address labels included in the package were pre-printed with the same helpful demographic information. “Jews were not singled out,” clarified an Alliance spokeswoman. “I know for a fact that people of other religions, Catholic and Hindu, for instance, were labeled.”