When most Americans think of U.S. Marines, they think of things like courage and unflappable resolve. But today, when Marines in Iraq consider similar values, the image of an elderly grandmother walking slowly to her designated polling station–braving the threat of death and dismemberment–comes to mind.
The Iraqi people did not just participate in national elections on Sunday. They humbled people the world over, and won for themselves both another step toward democracy and a newfound reputation as being among history’s bravest of the brave.
“The Iraqis arrived at the polling sites dressed in their best clothes,” Captain Carrie Batson, with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) near Najaf, tells NRO. “Everyone was ecstatic and all smiles, congratulating each other on the vote, and holding their purple index finger up in the air as prideful evidence that they had voted. There were Iraqis leading the blind and rolling old women on carts to polling sites, and entire families entering the sites so the children could watch the parents vote.”
The day wasn’t without bloodshed and fear. Suicide bombers and mortar attacks were launched against a few polling stations and other civilian targets. Voters standing in long lines prayed and encouraged the frightened as distant explosions shook the earth. But they stood fast as the lines inched forward to the ballot box.
Despite the risks and losses, “the excitement was contagious,” says Master Sergeant Kelley S. Ramsey, a public-affairs chief for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) near Fallujah. “You couldn’t help but be emotionally moved when watching Iraqis smile, some even cry, on this historic day. It was like waking up on Christmas morning. Democracy was the best present of all. It was sitting under their tree, with the biggest bow on it.”
Those in Iraq were far more confident of a high voter turnout than the hopefuls and pessimists elsewhere in the world.
On election eve–before highways were shut down–Captain Batson was in downtown Najaf. She tells NRO, “All the cafes and restaurants were brimming with people, and many Najafis had lined up chairs along the roads and markets and were having what looked like a block party on the streets.
“As our convoys drove around, the Iraqis would get up and stand on their chairs, waving at and cheering the Marines.
“Around the holy Imam Ali Shrine, election posters covered most walls and Iraqis passed out paraphernalia for their political parties to citizens passing by.
“I saw at least four different groups of cars decorated with flowers and political posters driving around the town, honking their horns and cheering. It initially looked like these were wedding parties, but upon closer look it became obvious that these Iraqis were campaigning and celebrating the upcoming elections.”
Much of that ebullience stems from the growing confidence in the ability of their own soldiers and police officers to protect them.
“We expected a spike in attacks today [election day],” says Capt. David Nevers, spokesman for the 24th MEU. “Nobody doubted there would be violence and casualties. But I think it’s safe to say that at the end of the day, the insurgents failed to make the impact they desired and promised.”
Key to that success was Iraqi security.
“The Iraqis took their posts nearest the centers of gravity, the polling stations,” says Nevers. “In the face of threats and violence, they stood fast, held their ground, and demonstrated once again that given time, training and equipment, they can be counted on to protect and defend their own country.”
First Lieutenant Nathan J. Braden with the 1st Marine Division witnessed a respectable turnout at numerous voting stations within Al Anbar, a province encompassing much of the Sunni Triangle, including the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, which many officials feared would have poor turnout.
“Not all of the polling centers were filled to the gills with voters, but we have seen pretty good voter turnout at a number of the centers,” he says. “Every citizen made a choice today, either to participate in the elections or not to participate. That decision, in itself, is a demonstration of freedom and democracy.”
Col Jenny Holbert, with the 1st MEF, adds that during the final hour of voting she received “reports from some areas within Al Anbar that exceeded many people’s expectations. It’s wonderful to see the Iraqis get out to vote, knowing any polling center could be a target. The Iraqis are taking their country back from terrorists who have no investment in this country’s future. The enemy cannot win”
According to Batson, when Iraqis were asked–hours before polls opened–if they were going to vote, “they looked at you like you had three heads. ‘Of course we’re going to vote,’ they responded, ‘It’s our duty.’”
Vote they did: Between eight and ten million Iraqis (56 to 72 percent of 14.27 eligible voters) cast ballots, Sunday. It was a higher percentage than what we witnessed in our own general elections, last November. And no one was tossing grenades at us.
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist and the author of four books, including the Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces.