A chilly morning to vote in Mosul

MOSUL, Iraq - We walked into the polling site and the guards, both Iraqi army and police, waved us in. Ibon, a journalist with Reuters, asked in Arabic if we could hang out for the next hour.

It was 7:45 a.m. and the polling site still wasn't open. The line outside was growing more restless.

I was anxious to see this vote happen because a few months ago, during the Jan. 30 election, this was impossible for me to see up close. What would happen in the next few days would be even more important.

The run-up to the referendum was plagued with calls from Sunni Arabs to boycott, calls from Shias and Kurds to vote and everyone saying Iraq's constitution would pass no matter what.

Well, the constitution would pass, and the Sunnis did vote despite the threats against them from other Sunnis if they did.

I dropped off my body armor and took my cameras outside to the long lines. I watched at first to gauge the people's reaction. Tall gringos with red beards and long hair (long for me anyway) are not a common sight around here. I started making a few photos, and people became friendlier.

It was chilly, and the sun was out. The lines stretched down the block. There was an air of tension. Men and women, in two different lines, talked softly and fingered prayer beads. Many of the older men and women were sitting down. Soldiers and policemen walked up and down the line.

A few Kurdish men waved me over; I sat down with them and made photos. I don't speak Kurdish and just kept muttering "thank you" like an idiot as I snapped away with my Nikons.

Driving out here, I noticed people just weren't out in the streets as on Jan. 30. That day was marked by large crowds and a building crescendo of gunfire and explosions; Oct. 15 was marked by near-silence and small crowds.

It turns out there was no bang-bang. The most excitement I had was making photos of voters angry because their site hadn't opened 90 minutes after the official start time of 7 a.m. Even watching the low-flying American helicopters wasn't that exciting.

I couldn't tell who was Sunni or Kurd. Well, I could sort of. The Kurdish men wore their checkered kefyeh scarves wrapped around their heads.

The women, dressed in abayas, were lined up along a wall and covered their faces every time I looked at them. The Sunnis, trying to look inconspicuous, dressed in T-shirts and jeans.

The threat against them by the various terror groups here can't be overstated. Many Sunnis, I'm sure, voted no against the country's provisional constitution. But at least they voted this time.

By mid-afternoon Ibon and I were at a second polling site. Again, we received permission from the site director to observe the decisive act of democracy - voting. It was weird seeing it, for me at least, because just months ago I wasn't allowed inside these rooms.

This time the heat of the day and the effects of Ramadan fasting found the site nearly empty of voters. It looked to me as if there were more poll workers than voters.

The dark classrooms were simply laid out. People at two tables checked the voting cards and held ballots; three cardboard voting booths stood against another wall and faced out; another table had the famous bottles of purple dye, and the last table held the clear-plastic ballot boxes.

I made photos of people dyeing their finger purple and dropping their ballots in. Most of them had big grins on their faces.

A few didn't smile. One Sunni, dressed in a white dishdasha, fingered worry beads and, holding his young son by the hand, said the constitution was bad for not only Iraq but for Islam.

He isn't alone. Iraq's Sunni Arabs have said the document will split the country. There have also been calls of ballot-rigging in places like Mosul and Kirkuk. I didn't buy it because the Sunnis were going to cry foul no matter what. I didn't see any sort of malfeasance, but who's to say it didn't happen?

Will the democratic experiment work here? I can't say for certain. But if Saturday, Oct. 15, is any example, then I'd say the signs point in that direction.

Now, whether that experiment is a unified Iraq is a whole different matter.

Bill Putnam, a freelance photojournalist, worked for Pacific Publishing in 2002-03 and remains a member of the family. He may be reached by writing to editor@sdistrictjournal.com.[[In-content Ad]]