BAGHDAD - Even as the explosions thundered over Baghdad, they 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.
The Shi'a Muslims of Baghdad on Sunday walked quietly to polling stations, 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 Shi'as, 3km away.
The Kurds voted, in their tens of thousands, but the Sunnis - 20 percent of Iraq's population, whose insurgency was the principal reason for this election - boycotted or were intimidated from the polling stations.
The turnout figure, estimated at perhaps 72 percent of Iraq's 15-million registered voters, represented both victory and tragedy. For while the Shi'as voted in their millions with immense courage, the Sunni voice remained silent, casting into semi-illegitimacy the National Assembly whose existence is supposed to provide the US with a political excuse to extricate itself from its little Vietnam in the Middle East.
A Iraqi soldier, with his face hidden, casts a ballot at a polling
station in the Salhiyah district of Baghdad. (AFP/Ramzi Haidar)
You cannot give us 'democracy' just like this
And yes, there was the violence we all expected. There were nine suicide bombers in Baghdad - the largest number ever to have killed themselves on a single day anywhere in the Middle East.
An American mercenary and a US soldier were among the first to die when mortars exploded across the American-appointed administration buildings in central Baghdad. Then more than 20 voters were cut down. Before dusk came news that a Royal Air Force C-130 Hercules transport aircraft had crashed en route to the largely insurgent-held city of Balad. In all, almost 50 people were killed across Iraq.
But it was the sight of those thousands of Shi'as, the women mostly in black hejab 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, these people, who represent 60 percent of Iraq, did not heed his threats.
They came to claim their rightful power in the land - that is why Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the grand marja of the Shi'as of Iraq, told them to vote - and woe betide the Americans and British if they do not get it. For if this election produces a parliamentary coalition which splits the Shi'as and turns their largest party into the opposition, then the Sunni insurgency will become a national uprising.
"I came here," said a young man in the Jadriya polling station, "because our grand marja told us that voting today was more important than prayer and fasting."
An older man beamed with delight. "My name is Abdul-Rudha Abu Mohamed and I am so happy today," he said. "They must elect a president from us and we must be one with all Iraqis - and we must have justice."
Even the local election agent was close to tears. Taleb Ibrahim admitted that he had participated in Saddam Hussein's one-man elections but that this day marked the moment when the Shi'as of Iraq, after refusing to take revenge on their Ba'athist oppressors, would show their 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."
Across Baghdad, it was the same story; entire families moved as one towards the polling stations while the air rang with explosions. Just after voting started, there were 30 detonations in the city in less than two minutes - but still they came as if on a family day out.
Bombs are now heartbeats in Iraq, and we could hear the thump of explosions
even above the low-flying American Apache choppers. Yet along the empty
roads, neighbors stopped to talk and show each other the indelible ink
on their index fingers that officials used to ensure there were no double
It was both the safest and the most dangerous of days.
At one polling station, I asked the first of the young Iraqi soldiers who were
to check us - all wore black woolen face masks so that they could not
be identified - if he was frightened.
"It doesn't matter," he said.
"I am ready to die for this day. We have got to vote."
Seven hours later I talked to him again and he, too, had the indelible ink on his finger. "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 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 that it will not.
No one I met on Sunday believes the insurgency will end - many thought it would
grow more ferocious - and the Shi'as in the polling stations said with
one voice that they were also voting to rid Iraq of the Americans, not
to legitimize their presence.
This is a message that the Americans and British will ignore at their peril.
On Baghdad's streets on Sunday, the Americans deployed thousands of troops, most of them trying to show some respect for the people, watching them rather than threatening them with their rifles, which is how they usually behave in the dangerous capital.
A certain Captain Buchanan from Arkansas even ventured a political thought. "It's a pity the Sunnis aren't voting - it's their loss."
But of course it is also Iraq's loss and the Shi'as' loss too - and possibly America's loss. 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 what he thought would be the future of his country.
He had not voted - in many Sunni cities only a third of the polling stations opened - but he had thought a lot about this question.
"You cannot give us 'democracy' just like this. This is one of your Western, foreign dreams," he said. "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."
© 2005 The Star & Independent Online (Pty) Ltd