February 7, 2005 | National Review Online

We Will Never Forget This Day – Election Day in Iraq

By: Joseph Morrison Skelly, 2003 FDD Academic Fellow.

A few weeks ago the election season opened with a bang in Baquba, a city of 280,000 people located on the eastern edge of the Sunni Triangle. On the evening of January 16th several mortars suddenly slammed into our Army compound, known as the CMOC, or Civil-Military Operations Center. After seeing the blue flashes of exploding shells outside the window of the small, cement, Iraqi-style bungalow we were working in, and being covered by a thin film of dust that filtered down from the ceiling, my fellow soldiers and I said, “Phew, those were CLOSE!” We immediately knew the terrorists in town were sending a message, firing a shot across the bow of the impending elections.

The shells might as well have been duds. We were not intimidated, nor were citizens across this city cowed by similar attacks aimed at them. The election schedule moved inexorably forward. People registered to vote; parties issued their lists of candidates; their workers plastered colorful posters on walls and buildings in the markets; and politicians appeared on television and radio. We were not expecting perfection — even the American electoral system occasionally has flaws — but “free and fair” elections, which is the international standard. Such an outcome would mark the first step on the long road to political and moral recovery in the region.

On Sunday, January 30 I awoke early, at 2:30 A.M. In 90 minutes I would head out on a series of missions to support the elections with soldiers from my own unit, the 411th Civil Affairs Battalion, and the 1/6 Artillery Battalion of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the First Infantry Division, all based at the CMOC and nearby Forward Operating Base Gabe. We knew we would be out all day and well into the evening. As we prepared for the tasks ahead, Major Ben Conboy, the commanding officer of the CMOC, and I could hear the sound of gunfire and a series of explosions detonating across the city — stray mortars, IEDs, and RPGs. When we walked outside, bright red tracer rounds streaked across the night sky several hundred yards to the south. Ominous signs. The terrorists were active. They were trying to broadcast an early warning to the people of Baquba: “Stay away from the polls today.” Once again, they would not succeed.

Our convoy of Humvees pulled out of the CMOC at 4:00 A.M. (they are up-armored, by the way, and secured by bristling machine guns, thanks to the diligent efforts of American workers who are putting in numerous overtime hours to provide us with the best military equipment in the world). We joined up with four heavily armored Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles. We first provided outer-cordon security for the delivery of ballots to several polling sites. (What struck me was that they were all schools, like in the United States). We proceeded to other locations. The Iraqi security forces guarding the election sites caught our attention. We noticed a subtle change in their posture: They were more engaged, confident, and tactically proficient. They sensed what was at stake.

At approximately 6:30 A.M. reports came in of an attack on the police station at Mufrek Circle, a regular target of the terrorists located three miles west of the CMOC. It had tactical significance for them on this day. With several polling sites in the immediate vicinity, they hoped to frighten off voters. We had a different point to communicate. Our convoy headed straight for Mufrek. The menacing sound of the approaching Bradleys at the front proved to be an effective weapon in itself: by the time we rolled up on the Circle, the insurgents had fled. They knew they were no match for American firepower. The message of Iraqi and Coalition Forces — it would be safe to vote — started to gain traction, like the tracks of the Bradleys gripping the streets of Baquba.

The polls officially opened at 7:00 A.M. The first few sites we observed were relatively quiet at this early hour. Still, there were signs of hope. Workers for the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI) proudly displayed their official badges and armbands. At a polling station in Old Baquba, several people were already lined up outside, while the workers inside made their final preparations. Half of these Iraqis were women. As we drove through the streets, many people peered tentatively from their doorways. In a neighborhood called Al-Huwaydir, near the Diyala River, a man dressed in his finest suit of clothes proudly walked past us to vote. His quiet dignity was moving.

Over the next few hours the terrorists continued to test the mettle of the Iraqi security forces and American troops, with scattered IEDs and small arms fire. They went for broke in an area called Buhriz, launching a concentrated attack on an American convoy and a nearby school. They failed miserably when several artillery rounds crashed onto their position and a Quick Reaction Force raced to the area and reasserted control. By 11:30 A.M. the insurgents across the city had been crushed.

Meanwhile, radio and television stations working out of the Diyala media center were encouraging people to go out and cast their ballots. In neighborhood after neighborhood residents started to vote with their feet, walking to the polls since vehicular traffic had been banned. For the next several hours we witnessed a steady increase in activity. Streets started to fill with people. The weather warmed up, it was like an early spring day in the United States. Children played soccer and other games. At 3:00 P.M. we revisited the election site in Old Baquba. A constant stream of people arrived at the school. They were searched by the Iraqi police and then went inside to vote. They emerged triumphant, people of all ages, young and old, men and women, some in traditional garb, others in secular dress. Many who walked by smiled at us. Several proudly held up their ink-stained index fingers, a new badge of honor, a finger in the eye of the terrorists, a symbol of Iraqi freedom.

After dark we set out for Al-Huwaydir to provide outside-perimeter security as the polling site closed. We traveled along one dark road with a canal to our right, surrounded by a palm grove. We turned left up a narrow street towards the village. Two of the four Bradleys in our convoy remained at the intersection, guarding the approach to Al-Huwaydir. We drove up to some concrete Jersey barriers several hundred yards away and pushed them to the side so another convoy with IECI workers that was due to arrive within minutes could get right to the polling station and load the ballot boxes. A mortar impacted a few hundred yards away. The two Bradleys with us squeezed off rounds into the darkness. We completed the task, and proceeded to drive back down to the canal.

Within minutes we heard the sudden explosion of an IED coming from the direction of the intersection. Urgent voices crackled on the radio. Terrorists lurking in the palm groves had just fired off several RPGs at the approaching IECI convoy. We sped up. One hundred yards from the canal road we veered slightly to the left to make room for the convoy as it turned up the narrow street towards us. The two Bradleys standing guard opened up, sending rounds of their .25mm main guns into the palm groves, snapping off branches, and breaking the back of the terrorists' last stand. We watched through the intersection as tracers ripped across the road. Once the firing halted, our vehicles rolled down and to the right, and took up positions along the canal. Troops fired illumination rounds over the palm trees, and night turned to day. There was no sign of the terrorists. They had been pushed further back into the putrid swamps from which they had crawled. How their cowardness contrasted with the decent people of Al-Huwaydir, who had cast their votes in large numbers. Up the road the IECI workers collected several thousand ballots, which are now being counted.

As reports come in, the voting rate is being pegged at somewhere between 60 percent and 70 percent. Whatever the exact figure turns out to be, it is 100 percent more people than were ever able to vote in a legitimate democratic election during Saddam Hussein's regime. One Iraqi friend described to me how Baathist officials would force people to polling sites in Saddam's sham elections. No more. On election day, freedom was on the ballot in Iraq. The people voted unanimously for it. Operation Iraqi Freedom is one step closer to reality. America and its allies are safer today. This election is in our national security interests. A democratic Iraqi will not support terrorist organizations nor pose a threat to its neighbors. The road ahead will still be long and difficult, there is no doubt about that, but we have passed a critical milestone.

In Baghdad, Prime Minister Allawi said, “The terrorists were defeated in Iraq.” This is true. The Iraqis who voted in droves have dealt them a serious blow. In Baquba, the people know they are the ultimate winners. The word in the markets today, according to a friend, is “Down with the mujahadeen.” Another colleague from Baquba put it best: “Thanks to Coalition Forces, we will never forget this day.”

— Joseph Morrison Skelly, a college professor in New York City, is serving in Iraq with the 411th Civil Affairs Army Reserve Battalion in support of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division and served as an Academic Fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies 2003-2004.