BAGHDAD - Two weeks after Iraq's first democratic election, hopes for a better future have given way in some quarters to pessimism, or at least to more limited expectations, as resurgent violence and a delay in the final tally have added to political uncertainty.
Western and Iraqi officials said they had seen a slight decrease in violence against coalition forces. However, a string of attacks directed mainly at Shiite Muslims and ethnic Kurds left scores of civilians dead and shattered hopes that a significant portion of insurgents would desist after the election.
On Saturday, at least 21 people were killed in attacks even as election officials promised to release final results at 4 p.m. today.
In random interviews with more than 20 Iraqis across the country, conducted over recent days in five cities, Times correspondents found a range of moods. Some expressed deep disappointment; others still harbored hope that their lives would improve. Many were willing to wait and see whether the election victors could make a difference.
"It's true that it is all the same or even worse in some areas since the election, but this might be because results are not out yet," said Ahmed Hon Monty, a self-described optimist in the southern city of Basra who works for a private company.
"I am still sure that after the results are known," Monty said, "there will be a general agreement among the different political figures, a new legitimate government will be born, and general conditions, especially security, will improve."
But Huda Hadi, a resident of Mosul, in the north, was less optimistic. She considered the election an empty exercise, and she did not regret in the least her decision to boycott it.
"Elections have not changed anything, at all, at all," she said. "We will not have a president, unless the Americans pick him."
The election results have been delayed in part by a probe into charges of ballot tampering, news services reported. Partial results, however, indicate that an alliance of mainly Shiite Muslim groups is far ahead, followed by a partnership of the two main Kurdish parties and then a secular bloc led by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Parties associated with Sunni Arabs, who largely boycotted the vote, appear to have fared poorly.
In the latest attacks Saturday, at least 17 people died in a car bomb explosion outside a hospital in Musayyib, a market town 35 miles southwest of Baghdad. A prominent judge was gunned down in Basra, and the bodies of six assassinated Iraqi national guardsmen were found in Mosul, where police also clashed with insurgents on the streets.
Musayyib, on the Euphrates River, is in a mixed Sunni-Shiite area and has witnessed many guerrilla attacks in recent months. Reuters reported that a vehicle packed with explosives had raced toward the town's government building but exploded in front of the hospital. More than a score of people were also injured.
In Mosul, ferocious clashes erupted between gunmen and Iraqi national guardsmen backed by American forces. An hours-long battle in the district called New Mosul damaged a mosque and left a truck ablaze. At least three people were killed and 13 wounded, said a doctor at Jumhouri Hospital, and some reports said up to nine insurgents were slain.
Police found the bodies of six Iraqi national guardsmen, who were apparently executed, in eastern Mosul. "These are some of the ING soldiers who participated in the Fallouja operation," read a note found with the corpses, referring to the U.S.-led assault on the city in November.
To the south, unidentified gunmen fired at Taha Amiri, the investigative judge in Basra, at 8:30 a.m. while he was on his way to court, killing him and critically wounding his driver, a police officer.
After the relative calm during the voting, when most of Iraq was placed under a security clampdown that banned traffic and put massive numbers of troops and police on the streets, a pattern of abductions, assassinations, sabotage and car bombings has returned. Some roads are again controlled by guerrillas, and there has been a sustained rebel assault on a police outpost.
Many Iraqis admitted being unnerved.
"What can I tell you?" said Majeed Abed Ameer Kamees, 48, an automotive electrician in Basra.
"I give up. Everything is bad here, because everything depends on security. You can't find a job without security, and things are going from bad to worse."
He said the elections were a good thing, yet he did not expect Iraq to get any better even after a new government took office.
"The fault is not in the government," he said. "The people are bad, and that cannot be fixed."
"Since the elections, the situation is not so good," said Rasha Mohammed Jassim, 23, a teacher interviewed in Baqubah, a site of frequent clashes between insurgents and U.S. troops over the last year. On Friday a bomb hidden in a vegetable cart and apparently directed at Shiite pilgrims killed 21 people in a village outside the town, underscoring Jassim's sense of omnipresent peril.
"We long for the good old days of Saddam [Hussein], when we could go out at night and see our friends, and not be afraid of car bombs or the Americans," she said. "But those days are not coming back."
In Najaf, a Shiite holy city about 100 miles to the south of Baghdad, expectations were high that the Shiite alliance would take a leading role in the new government. But even there, many expressed discouragement.
Nadhim Juwad Muslim, 40, a cobbler seated on a broken-down steel chair next to a seemingly ancient machine set up on the pavement, said he barely made enough money to make it through the day. He voted enthusiastically, showing up at the polling station at 6 a.m., and said he already sensed improvement.
"I think security is better than what it was before. I personally feel safer when I see police all around the city," he said.
When the new government is formed, he hopes it will help him find proper employment. "We will wait to see what happens," he said.
Nearby, Nada Habib Omran, 42, who owns a pharmaceuticals store that was damaged in a recent explosion, looked sad and tired but exuded a quiet pride as she spoke softly of the election's consequence for Shiites, long suppressed by Hussein's regime.
"Our self-esteem is greater," she said. "Coming back to work after the elections was like returning from a holiday festival. We were so happy, and we started giving away candy."
Several people said it did not matter so much that security conditions had not changed — at least Iraqis got to enjoy the sensation of being in charge of their own destiny.
"It's a feeling that you cannot put into words," said Akbal Abd, a 43-year-old primary-school teacher in Baghdad who voted for Prime Minister Allawi's coalition.
"Like I told my son on election day: Today I know what democracy means."
Some of that spirit may have rubbed off on Iyad Yahya, 29, a university teacher in Mosul. He said he was kicking himself for having been too afraid to vote.
"Afterward, I heard that my poor and simple relatives had voted, while me, the thinking man, the educated man, was sitting back in my house. I hated myself because I was a coward," he said.
"I wish that all Iraqis would think about their right to vote and not allow some bunch of people to control our destiny or intimidate us," he said, adding that he was praying for the time to pass quickly so he could vote the next time around.
Times special correspondents Othman Ghanim in Basra, Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf and others in Baghdad, Baqubah and Mosul contributed to this report.
© 2005 Los Angeles Times