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December 15, 2005
Iraqis Turn Out In Droves, CNN Reports, While Negotiated Truce Holds

At this point in the Iraqi election polling, it appears that the day has provided a smashing success for democracy. Christiane Amanpour of CNN reported moments ago from Baghdad that the turnout in Sunni areas has been surprisingly high, compared to what she experienced in the last two elections. Here's a rough transcript of her report, coming at midday in Baghdad, talking live with anchor Soledad O'Brian:

SO: What are you seeing there?

CA: Well, Soledad, we are at a polling place at a school not far from our office here in Baghdad, which has been turned into a polling station. There are police outside, there are Iraqi Army outside. These people have been maintaining the security -- in fact, they have been sleeping at these polling stations for several days before the election. .... All day, it's been quite a steady stream of people coming to vote. In Baghdad, we're not so surprised because we've seen this, particularly in the Shi'ite and mixed areas in the last two elections. There was January and the referendum in October.

But what really surprised me was the turnout in the Sunni population. We went to a place called Dura in southern Baghdad. It's quite a violent place, it's quite a poor place, it's mostly Sunni, but the turnout was high there. They said that they had made a mistake, basically, by sitting out the last election. They wanted their voice heard, they wanted to be counted, and so they're going to the polls today. ... The one thing most people have said is that they don't want a religious state here or a religious government.

Nic Robertson also reports from Ramadi that the violence has not kept the voters there from going to the polls -- a major shift from January, when only one person cast a ballot in this Sunni terrorist area. The "militias" have provided the Ramada residents with security to get them to the polls, and Robertson reports that a celebratory atmosphere has developed at these stations.

Part of the reason for the high turnout and relatively low violence over the past few days appears to be secret negotiations between the American military command and some native insurgent groups for a cease-fire, according to the Washington Times. The truce got approval from the highest ranks of the US command in Iraq and looks to have been mostly successful, although the policy did not have unanimous support among the command officers:

After months of painstaking dialogue, U.S. officials have persuaded most of the main insurgent groups to cease violence for today's election and its immediate aftermath, U.S. officials said yesterday. In return, the U.S. military agreed, despite severe internal disagreements, to halt "offensive operations" during the period, U.S. Embassy officials said on the condition of anonymity.

Polls opened today at 7 a.m., as expected, for the historic vote, but moments later a loud blast sounded in the capital, according to witnesses quoted by wire services. There were no immediate reports of any casualties or damage. ...

The decision to negotiate, taken by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, met with resistance from several of his fellow officers. It was then decided to make no public statement, but simply to act on the new orders in secret.

U.S. forces are thought to be fighting dozens of different insurgent groups, making it difficult to measure the effort's success. Moreover, the time frame for the agreement, which also included several days prior to the vote, is not clear. Nevertheless, the agreement has generally held up, despite some notable exceptions, such as Tuesday's killing of a leading Sunni politician in Ramadi. On the same day, U.S. forces raided the city.

Casey rolled the dice on this election day, hoping that the time had finally come to encourage the native "insurgency", which has a more anti-foreigner than Islamist bent, to buy into the political process. Those left out of the negotiations, such as the Zarqawi faction, obviously will continue to attempt their operations to disrupt the elections, but the lack of widespread violence may indicate that Zarqawi's ability to conduct such operations has been severely curtailed. Casey may have chosen wisely here -- and the vote might finally convince the Sunni to either lay down their weapons or to join the new Iraqi security forces and serve the newly elected democratic republic, under the civilian command of the National Assembly.

A few more tough hours remain, and then the courage of the Iraqi people will have taken the voting itself as far as it can go. After that, it falls to the election workers and the interim government to bring the results to fruition as Iraq prepares for its first peaceful and civilian transition of power in its history.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 15, 2005 6:06 AM

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