RAMADI, IRAQ -- The defeatists back home didn't think it could be done. But today, the Iraqi people, only recently liberated from a repressive dictatorship, held their third election in the space of a year. After first choosing a transitional government in January, they returned to the polls in October to approve a constitution. In both cases, they turned out in great numbers under the threat of violence. Today, millions of those same Iraqi citizens trekked to one of thousands of polling places around the country to vote for candidates who will form a 275-member National Assembly that will take office on Dec. 31.
On election day, I was with the Marines of 3/7 atop an outpost in the heart of one of the most vicious neighborhoods in this very violent city of Ramadi. It was once a stronghold of the Sunni terrorist movement, but thanks to these Marines, it no longer is.
The election began at 7:00 a.m. with a bang, and the Marines were ready. They responded to the improvised explosive device (IED) and afterwards, for a time, the streets were nearly empty.
But imams, sheiks and local leaders urged people to get out and vote, and because they did, the turnout was dramatic. One local imam told his followers, "God will bless you with a great life if you go out and vote." That and similar messages were broadcast from mosques all around town.
At the end of this historic day, there was not a sound of gunfire, but instead, as the polls closed, there was a call to prayer. It was even an occasion for celebration as the neighborhood children were out in the streets, after dark, playing soccer with equipment that was given to them by Americans in uniform.
Capt. Brian Grant told me the turnout was "an overwhelming success." Indeed it was -- there were lines that wrapped around the block and extended for hundreds of people. 10 polling places ran out of ballots and had to send out for more. The safe environment provided by the Marines, with the help of Iraqi security forces and local religious leaders, gave citizens the added confidence to go to the polls without worrying about their personal safety.
It is nothing short of remarkable. Because here in Ramadi, which is the capital of Iraq's largest province and the heart of the Sunni Triangle, there has been tremendous opposition from the jihadists who did everything they could to prevent this election from taking place. In fact, in this area during the last election, less than five percent of the people turned out to vote.
The violence is caused mostly by the IED -- a terrible thing which remains the terrorists' weapon of choice. The Marines were confronted with several earlier in the week, but the good news is that the security situation in Ramadi is a great deal better today than it was just a few months ago when I was last here.
It is better, in part, because there are now a lot more Iraqis providing security in this area, which was not the case during my last visit to this region. In fact, only a few months ago, there were no Iraqi areas of responsibility in this city. Today, there are Iraqi Army troops operating right next to soldiers and Marines. Now, they have their own areas of operation with some logistic support from the Americans.
As Lt. Chad Cliver told me, the Marines of 3/7 "work very closely with Iraqi Army troops as well as Iraqi police." Over the past several months, they have spent time training the Iraqis who are making a lot of progress -- so much so that Cliver says, "before we leave here we will have turned over most of Ramadi to the Iraqis themselves."
But it is that kind of steady, persistent progress that American troops are making over here that accounted for the successful election today. Throughout the week leading up to E-Day, numerous Marines with whom I spoke expressed confidence that the day would be a success.
I asked Lt. Col. Roger Turner, the commanding officer of 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines when I first arrived here, if he thought the terrorists could be held in check and that the elections would actually take place. Turner was confident, saying, "I think it will take place [because] the people of Ramadi very genuinely want to participate in elections." He explained that though the terrorists are desperate to disrupt the day, their violent tactics are backfiring on them and they are being "overtaken by events and the momentum that the democratic process starts to gain here."
When election day was over, I asked Lance Corporal Jeffrey Heath if the day was a success for the Marines. His reply: "Absolutely. This is why we're here -- to help the Iraqi people gain the kind of freedoms that we take for granted back in the States."
A profound and inspiring explanation from a brave and dedicated Marine. If only the kind of optimism that is so abundant here in Iraq were more prevalent in Washington.