As Iraqis queue up at polling stations, some of the scenes look more like a series of regional block parties than what most Westerners would associate with an election day. Children can be seen waving flags or playing soccer. Adults are cheering, clapping hands, beating drums, singing, dancing, and waving at passing U.S. and Iraqi military vehicles. There simply seems to have been more energy in the run-up to this election than in previous ones. And why not?
December 15, 2005, is a day of “national celebration, a day of the national unity, and of victory over the terrorists and those who oppose our march toward democracy,” announced Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
WHAT OUR SOLDIERS ARE SEEING
Though bracing for any vote-disrupting violence, U.S. troops in Iraq are witnessing firsthand the celebration phenomenon.
I spoke with some of those soldiers and Marines Wednesday evening as they returned from routine street patrols and other duties, and prepared to move into the wings–just behind Iraqi Army and police forces–for what may prove to be one of the most important parliamentary elections in modern history. All say the festive atmosphere of the elections stems from a variety of factors, including the Iraqis’ pride in their new nation, newfound freedoms, and trust in their Americans allies.
“On this side of the world, saying something and coming through and doing it means a great deal,” U.S. Marine Maj. Neil F. Murphy Jr., spokesman for Multi-National Force West at Camp Fallujah, tells National Review Online. “Iraqis know that we mean what we say by staying and helping them get on their feet.”
Consequently, he adds, “The Iraqi people are looking at this [election day] like an actual holiday.” Not in the sense that it need not be taken seriously, but in the sense of what one Iraqi army soldier said: “This is the first time in my whole life I got to choose the government of my country!”
U.S. Army Major Chris Hanna with the 5th Brigade, 87th Division (Training Support) in Al Kindi describes the excitement of an Iraqi Army sergeant major, who, last week, for the first time–in a long time–loaded his wife and kids in the family car and drove to the grocery store: Something we Americans often take for granted. Earlier this week, the sergeant major voted with other soldiers and policemen who pre-voted so that they could secure the polling sites on election day.
“As we prepared to visit the Iraqi units and polling sites in Mosul, I noticed the ink stained fingers of all the soldiers who voted early,” Hanna tells NRO. “I turned and looked over to the division sergeant major in the vehicle next to me and he was grinning from ear to ear. I held up my finger to see his, and he showed me his ink-stained finger and then a quick thumbs up. I’d never seen him so happy. Genuinely excited. He felt safe enough to go shopping last week, and now to vote on top of that? The optimism among the Iraqi soldiers and the Iraqis as we drove around Mosul is contagious.”
Sergeant First Class Larry Bull, also with 5th Brigade, agrees.
“I’ve seen more smiles than anytime ever before,” Bull says. “There seems to be an uplift of the spirits of all the individuals we pass from most everyone and all ages. I believe that the Iraqi people are seeing that the impossible might become the possible after the election. The vast majority of the populace seems to appreciate, not only the Iraqi soldiers, but us.”
Sergeant Major James Keesee describes the atmosphere in Mosul as that of a “large playground.”
Parents and their children are “walking the streets waving at the Americans and Iraqi-army patrols as they pass by,” he says.
Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Cooney says, “the streets are filled with children playing soccer,” and a general “euphoria” has apparently washed away any real concern of hostilities.
Officers like Major Rob Dixon says the Iraqis are clapping their hands in praise and gratitude as the U.S. Army vehicle patrols pass by.
NOT WITHOUT BLOODSHED
Despite the festive air, U.S. and Iraqi forces, as well as Iraqi civilians are still at high risk. The echoing crackle of sporadic gunfire could be heard in a few isolated incidents around the country on Wednesday. And on Tuesday, just two days before the polls opened, guerrillas shot to death Sunni parliamentary candidate Mezher al-Dulaimi as he was fueling his car in Ramadi, and four G.I.s were killed by an IED near Baghdad. Elsewhere, Shiite national assemblyman Jalal Eddin al-Sagheer narrowly missed being struck by a roadside bomb near Latifiyah, and Iraqi police arrested two guerrillas carrying 72 bombs they planned to detonate when polls opened in Iraq’s notorious Triangle of Death .
“I want all the killing and bleeding to stop,” says Iraqi Private Keis (for security reasons, Iraqi soldiers are only permitted to give their rank and first name to members of the media). “I want children to live a happy life.”
ACROSS THE COUNTRY
Still, the positive energy is growing, and it is not unique to Fallujah and Mosul.
In Baghdad and elsewhere, U.S. troops are hearing, seeing, and experiencing what one Iraqi officer described as feeling like his wedding day, and another, a national birthday.
“This is huge,” says Capt. Kelly Lewis with the 3rd Infantry Division’s public-affairs office in Baghdad. “The Iraqis have worked so hard to make this happen. The American soldiers are simply going to make sure this happens.”
Lewis adds, “I think we are going to see a very respectable Sunni turnout. They’ve seen what happens when they don’t turn out.” And they want a voice in the new Iraq.
What may be even more surprising is how they vote.
“Most of the Iraqis I’ve talked to in the Tigris River Valley area are genuinely optimistic about this election,” says Major Mike Doherty with the 5th Brigade. “What gives me hope is that most of the Sunni Arabs I’ve talked to, at least in this area, have voiced their support for [former Iraqi Prime Minister] Iyad Allawi–a Shia Arab–because of his stance supporting a united Iraq.”
U.S. soldiers know–in much the same way their grandfathers hunkered down in troop transports in the English Channel on June 6, 1944, knew–they are participating in something far bigger than themselves individually.
“We can always say we were here,” says Lt. Col. Frederick P. Wellman with the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq in Baghdad. “It’s like the whole country is holding its breath right now. Everyone is anticipating this chance to change the direction of their country. This is truly an incredible time to be here, to be witness to something that is historic in so many ways.”
U.S. troops also see the success of today’s election is a death sentence for the insurgency. “This is where we turn the corner; where the Iraqi people make the decision to collectively put the insurgency in the ground,” says Lt. Col. Scott Morrison with the 5th Brigade.
“Now, we will witness the power of the individual Iraqi citizen as they slough off the burdens of their past; discount the present feeble attempts of the terrorist and assume responsibility for their future,” says Col. Michael C. Cloy, 5th Brigade commander and the senior military adviser for the 2nd Iraqi army (light) infantry division.
Master Sergeant Barry Kerby, also of the 5th Brigade, may have best summed-up the Iraqis’ enthusiasm and expressive appreciation for the sacrifices made by Americans in that country. “With the exception of a child, freedom is the greatest gift one human being can give another,” he says.
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is the author of four books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.