After boycotting elections in January, Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority, which once dominated the country under Saddam Hussein, turned out en masse to vote in elections Thursday to choose a new four-year government. VOA Correspondent Aisha Ryu visited polling stations in predominantly Sunni areas in and around Baghdad and reports that Sunni Arabs, many of whom had never taken part in a democratic vote before, expressed both fear and optimism about the future of Iraq.
The Sunni mosque in the Baghdad neighborhood of Bayaa began calling on the faithful to midday prayers. But hardly anyone standing in a line to enter the local polling station appeared to be hearing the muezzin.
In the middle of the line, a 40-year-old woman, identifying herself only as Um Ahmed, anxiously cranes her neck from side to side to see how quickly the police guarding the station are searching the people ahead of her.
Despite the wait, Um Ahmed's mood was as cheerful as the bright pink scarf she wore on her head.
Because of a widespread Sunni boycott in January, she says she did not take part in those elections. Smiling in anticipation of voting freely for the first time in her life, she says she wants to be counted in the process of choosing a government that she hopes will not be biased toward one group of Iraqis at the expense of another.
The sentiment of hundreds of Sunni voters at a polling station in Abu Ghraib, west of the capital, was similar.
Kassim Jabbar Hantoush, 56, says Sunnis made a mistake not voting in the previous elections because the boycott gave Sunnis virtually no voice in the government and allowed Shi'ites and Kurds to sideline the Sunni people.
He says Sunnis now must elect a government that will be far more balanced and responsive to their needs or risk becoming politically irrelevant.
Mr. Hantoush says he believes the government in power now is creating far more divisions among Iraqis than the presence of foreign troops.
In October, Sunni Arabs went to the polls in large numbers to reject a mostly Shi'ite and Kurdish-written constitution that, in part, gives power to regional governments in the oil-rich Kurdish north and Shi'ite-dominated south.
Sunnis, who live predominantly in the middle of the country with little natural resources of their own, say the arrangement would cut them out of the oil wealth of Iraq and lead to its breakup.
Sunni Arabs are determined to win more representation in the next government to amend the provision in the constitution.
They also want more power to force coalition forces to set a timetable for the withdrawal of their troops from the country. Sunnis have often criticized Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders for their reluctance in asking the coalition to leave.
The United States, which has 160,000 troops in Iraq right now, says it welcomes Sunni participation in Iraq's political process because it could calm the Sunni-led insurgency and create better conditions for a gradual withdrawal.
But political analysts point out that even with a massive Sunni voter turnout, procedures used in Thursday's elections could still leave Sunni Arabs underrepresented in government.
That is because 230 out of 275 seats up for grabs in the national assembly are to be allocated among Iraq's 18 provinces. But the allocation does not depend on the actual population of a province. Instead, it is dependent on the relative number of people who registered to vote in the January 30 elections.
Since the majority of Sunnis boycotted the elections, the procedure penalizes Sunni Arabs in favor of Shi'ites and Kurds, who voted in overwhelming numbers.