The Good News from Iraq's Election Day

There are a lot of pitfalls in the path to Iraqi democracy. But they're getting the election part down. Today's voting to choose the leadership councils of 14 of the country's 18 provinces was orderly, safe and enthusiastic. As a reporter who's covered three before (not counting the one in 2002 in which Saddam claimed 100 percent support from 100 percent turnout), this election day lived up to its promise to show the best potential of Iraq. In any polling station you found thoughtful voters, like a distinguished architect or the relative of the Jordanian royal family, a retired Army officer, who now petitions for the preservation of the country's historic sites. The vote also showed the threats and echoes of the past, as displaced people struggled to get counted and some who've lost loved ones grappled with whether voting is worth it. And some of the novelty of past elections has been tempered by years of chaotic elected governments.

The main points:

-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called off the security curfew 14 hours early, almost like he was just showing off. It was a day of nearly total peace--one person died in a dispute with Iraqi troops in Baghdad and a few mortars fell without hurting anyone in Tikrit.

-The U.S. troop presence was, unexpectedly, higher than the last election in 2005. As usual, the GI's stayed out of polling stations (usually schools) but this time they conducted conspicuous foot patrols, supervised Iraqi police checkpoints and staked out major intersections. This election was more Iraqi run than the others but American troops were more visible. It seemed that, with the withdrawal of U.S. forces on the horizon, they wanted to provide Iraqis with some visible psychological reassurance that they are still on the job.

-The security presence overall was immense, the biggest I've seen. There were checkpoints every few hundred yards on the roads (western and local reporters, along with elections observers and emergency workers, were provided ID's and car decals allowing us to move through the empty streets in our little Nissan compact). We saw heavily equipped Iraqi commandos, national police, slightly ragged local police and Sahwa tribal gunmen in their market-bought uniforms--some with "Speclal (sic) Forces" patches on their shoulders.

-The voting seemed more organized than in the past, despite the complicated poster-sized ballots. But turnout may well be below the towering 76 percent seen in the last election in December, 2005. Despite overall enthusiasm, many say they feel burned by broken promises from the last elections.

With businesses closed, kids playing soccer on the empty highways and neighbors walking the streets to vote, the elections again took on a festival feel even as some noted that past votes haven't prevented strife later.

In the Raghiba Khatun neighborhood of Adhamiya, a Sunni district long a stronghold for insurgents brought under control a year ago by tribal fighters, two neighbors sat in plastic chairs on the sidewalk as voters walked into the school next door and reminisced about the bad old days. "The people who used to target voters used to stand on that corner there," gestured Jamal Ibrahim Khalil, 43. "They parked their cars and waited for people, to shoot them." Khalil, a former physical trainer, voted for former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's slate of local candidates, saying he had been non-sectarian during his short term.

His brother Ismail Khalil, 56, said he was taking a pass, at least as of mid-day. His son was killed in 2005 when insurgents attacked the police checkpoint he manned. Khalil says he has been denied the compensation his family deserves and that he won't vote for anyone. "I'm convinced no one deserves [my vote]."

But a steady flow of voters came to mark their ballots in the Muhej (Souls) Primary School, where a couple years ago the crack of nearby mid-day gunfire would send children hitting the classroom floors.

There's more true politics in this election than in 2005 for three reasons. The big sectarian blocks have split and are running against each other. Voters can now see the names of individual candidates and vote for them instead of just opaque party slates. And they've had a few years to see their politicians in action.

So they can make the cross-sectarian, mind-bending choices like that of genteel and deliberate Hazem al-Tak, a dapper 82-year-old and retired architect of major downtown buildings. He is a Sunni Muslim who, as you could expect, voted for a mainly Sunni list led by Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi. But he cast his vote for a Shiite member of the list who was reputed to have stopped Shiite militias intent on attacking an Adhamiya mosque in 2006.

Not everyone got to exercise their choice. Government bureaucrat Ala'a Mohammed Hassan, 42, and his wife, Asir Mahmoud, 30, moved to Adhamiya three years ago in flight from a violent neighborhood where they were Sunnis amid a large Shiite majority. But their names were still not on the local voter rolls despite their past efforts to register. When an elections official called their old area this morning, he was told they were not registered there either. Hassan worried it was a trick by poll workers in the old location to steal his vote. "Probably, someone else will vote instead of me [over there]," Hassan said dejectedly.

Outside the school, the mood was upbeat even among those with the worst election day duties. Past the Iraqi soldiers and the metal detector in the street, were several Sahwa, tribal troops. They announced they were all voting for former Prime Minister Allawi, a popular figure in Adhamiya seen as a secular, moderate Shiite. They offered me some scrambled eggs from their communal breakfast plate tilted on the hood of a parked Mercedes. They joked about their dangerous job on the outer ring. "They tricked us," one said. "They gave us the first checkpoint." But, as neighbors attest, since the Sahwa started working, things have been safer. "Everything is good, no problems," they chirped in unison.

It could be days before reliable unofficial results leak out from provincial centers and weeks for the final count. Prime Minister Maliki's slates appeared to be doing well and no titanic shifts were expected. Sunnis, who boycotted the last provincial vote, are sure to increase their representation. The internal competition between fellow Shiites and fellow Sunnis in homogeneous provinces should give the first significant indication of which ideologies, not just sects, are gaining popularity. If enough people feel they got a fair share, Raghiba Khatun could stay as peaceful as it was today.