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Last Updated: Monday, 31 January, 2005, 21:40 GMT
Courage and euphoria as Iraq votes
By Paul Wood
BBC News, Baghdad

In the dirt-poor town of Sumawa, right on Iraq's southern border, a baby was born in a polling station to an expectant mother determined that nothing would stop her from casting a ballot.

Iraqi troops celebrate after the vote
Security fears did not discourage many from going to the polls
In the holy city of Najaf, 80-year-old Mahdeya Saleh, dressed in a black abeya, declared: "I was often forced to vote under Saddam. Today, I come out of my own will to choose freely and cast my vote."

And in Baghdad, Samir Hassan refused to let the security ban on private cars stop him from voting, despite losing his leg to a bomb last October. "I would have crawled here if I had to," he said. "I don't want terrorists to kill other Iraqis like they tried to kill me. Today I am voting for peace."

Samir Hassan's vote was highlighted by President Bush in a statement declaring the poll a "resounding success".

Only days before, the White House had been briefing that to hold elections in Iraq at all would be an achievement, reflecting fears that the turnout would be low.

London, Washington and the interim Iraqi government now feel vindicated by the massive turnout in Kurdish and Shia areas.

The Shias in particular felt it was their duty to vote. It was their turn to run Iraq, they felt, after decades of Sunni domination.

This election has given Iraq, for the first time in its history, a government representative of a majority of its people.

So in the largely Shia streets near the BBC bureau in Baghdad there was a euphoric atmosphere. One elderly man, in black and white keffayah, had tears in his eyes.

"My two sons were executed by Saddam," he said, "I am voting to make sure we never return to the old ways of doing things in Iraq."

Engaging the Sunnis

Shia determination to vote was seen at one polling station in Baghdad.

A suicide attacker blew himself up, killing a policeman and badly injuring a number of voters.

Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi
Mr Allawi has pledged to include the Sunnis in a "national dialogue"
But severed limbs were swept aside, the torso of the suicide bomber removed, and, with the pavement still bloody, people gathered once again in a patient queue, waiting to vote.

That White House spin, prepared for a low turnout, was more applicable to Sunni areas. Some polling stations did not even open in the Sunni towns outside Baghdad, where the insurgency has been strongest.

Nevertheless, even in Falluja there was a trickle of voters. That was a remarkable act of courage given the insurgents' threat to behead anyone seen inside "centres of atheism and vice" as the militants describe polling stations.

The crucial question now is how many Sunnis voted. The UN says it may be higher than some had feared.

Counting of ballots continued through the night, sometimes by candlelight because of electricity cuts, but the final tallies will not be in for 10 days.

Senior Shia politicians, such as the interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, say they will try to make sure that whatever the final voting figures, Sunnis are included in the new government and on the committee writing a new constitution.

"I will start today a new national dialogue that ensures all Iraqis will have a voice in the new government," he told a news conference.

This may be the very minimum needed to defeat the insurgency and ensure that British and American forces are able, one day, to leave Iraq.

Iraq's landmark election is hailed as a success

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