31 January 2005
Even as the explosions thundered over Baghdad, the people came in their hundreds and then in their thousands. Entire families, crippled old men supported by their sons, children beside them, babies in the arms of their mothers, sisters and aunts and cousins.
That is how the Shia Muslims of Baghdad voted yesterday. They walked quietly to the Martyr Mohamed Bakr Hakim School in Jadriya, without talking, through the car-less streets, the air pressure changing around them as mortars rained down on the US and British embassy compounds and the first of the day's suicide bombers immolated himself and his victims - most of them Shias - two miles away.
The Kurds voted, too, in their tens of thousands, but the Sunnis - 20 per cent of Iraq's population, whose insurgency was the principal reason for this election - boycotted or were intimidated from the polling stations.
The turnout - estimated at 60 per cent of Iraq's 15 million registered voters - represented victory and tragedy. For while the Shias voted in their millions with immense courage, the Sunni voice of Iraq remained silent, casting into semi-illegitimacy the national assembly whose existence is supposed to provide America with a political excuse to extricate itself from its "little Vietnam" in the Middle East.
And yes, of course, there was the violence we all expected. There were to be nine suicide bombers in Baghdad - the largest number on a single day anywhere in the Middle East.
An American mercenary and a US soldier were among the first to die in Baghdad when mortars exploded, then more than 20 voters - four slaughtered beside a polling station in Sadr City - were cut down; before dusk came news that an RAF C-130 Hercules transport aircraft had crashed 25 miles north-west of Baghdad, en route to the largely insurgent-held city of Balad, the site of a big US airbase. In all, almost 50 men and women were killed across Iraq.
But how many were killed on the RAF aircraft? Tony Blair's strangely fearful statement about the election last night acknowledged some dead, but would give no other details. Why not? Were there three British crew dead? Or five? Or many, many more? And were there US passengers? President Bush also referred to US dead, as if it included more than the two killed in the morning. Was there something that might be revealed today, when the "success" of the elections had been polished without a tragedy to tarnish it?
Of course, it was the sight of thousands of Shias, the women in black "hijab" covering, the men in leather jackets or long robes, the children toddling beside them, that took the breath away. If Osama bin Laden had called these elections an apostasy, many did not heed his Wahabi threats. They came to claim their rightful power in the land - that is why Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the grand marja of the Shias of Iraq, told them to vote - and woe betide the US and British if they do not get it.
For if this election produces a parliamentary coalition that splits the Shias and turns their largest party into the opposition, then the Sunni insurgency will become a national uprising.
"I came here," a man told me in Jadriya, "because our grand marja told us voting today was more important than prayer and fasting." Even the local election agent was close to tears. Taleb Ibrahim admitted to me that he had participated in Saddam's one-man elections but this day marked the moment when the Shias - after refusing to take revenge on their Baathist oppressors - would show magnanimity.
Even if the Sunnis were boycotting the poll, he said, "there is an old saying that 'if the father becomes angry, we will have no problems with his sons'. We will make sure that these sons, the Sunnis, have equal rights with us." At one polling station, I asked the first of the young Iraqi soldiers who were to check us - all, I should add, wore black woollen face masks so that they could never be identified - if he was frightened. "It doesn't matter," he said very firmly. "I am ready to die for this day. We have got to vote." Seven hours later, I talked to him again and now he, too, had the indelible ink on his forefinger. "It's like you can change your future or your faith," he said. "We only had military coups and revolutions before. We voted 'yes' or 'yes'. Now we vote for ourselves."
It was easy to be maudlin about such words, to imbibe the false optimism of the Western television networks and the nonsense about Iraq's "historic" day - for it will only have been historic if it changes this country, and many fear it will not.
No one I met yesterday believes the insurgency will end. Many thought it would grow more ferocious and the Shias in the polling stations said with one voice that they were also voting to rid Iraq of the Americans, not to legitimise their presence.
On the streets yesterday, the Americans deployed thousands of troops, most of them trying to show some respect for the people. A certain Captain Buchanan from Arkansas even ventured a political thought. "It's a pity the Sunnis aren't voting - it's their loss," he said. But of course it is also Iraq's loss and, in a direct way, the Shias' loss too - and possibly America's. For without that vital minority component, who will believe in the new parliament or the constitution it is supposed to produce or the next government it is supposed to create?
I asked a Sunni Muslim security guard yesterday what he thought would be the future of his country. He had not voted, of course - in many Sunni cities, only a third of the polling stations opened - but he had thought a lot about the question.
"You cannot give us 'democracy' just like this," he said. "That is one of your Western, foreign dreams. Before, we had Saddam and he was a cruel man and he treated us cruelly. But what will happen after this election is that you will give us lots of little Saddams."