The first polling station I visited was one of the few where television cameras were allowed inside. All streets coming into the intersection nearest the polling station were blocked with concertina wire and palm-tree logs. Armed Iraqi police milled about in front, and an Iraqi soldier manning a machine gun mounted on a pickup truck was parked behind concrete barriers. Snipers were on the roof and balcony over the entrance.
The security searches went pretty quickly, as did the voting process. There were some problems-one 65-year-old woman couldn't find her name on the list and was told to go to another polling station. After a half-hour walk, she found she wasn't listed there either and was ready to quit and go home, but that polling-station manager allowed her to cast a ballot anyway.
All civilian car traffic was banned, but after many meetings with journalists, Iraq's Interior Ministry had said that news staff with proper credentials would be allowed to drive on election day. All of us at NPR had the right badges, but a colleague's car was shot at by Iraqi National Guard soldiers, and at 11 checkpoints I was told to get out of a car, put everything on the ground and face the wall. U.S. forces told other journalists to quit driving or they'd be shot.
This is largely because all the security measures in place were designed to stop car bombs, which officials saw as the worst potential threat. But it also thwarted full coverage of what was going on in Baghdad. I did eventually get to four polling stations, mostly on foot.
American soldiers were supposed to provide backup security-and stay away from polling centers to soften the image of elections taking place under what many Iraqis consider occupation. U.S. troops did patrol the streets.
Two great parts to the day: First, talking. People were thrilled at casting a ballot. There's a lot of hope that things will change. I talked to one man who had had two brothers murdered during Saddam Hussein's rule. He felt like he was avenging their blood. His 18-year-old son was voting for a party different than the one his parents chose; the father felt that was a true sign of democracy.
Second, walking! For over a year during visits here, I've walked nowhere in Baghdad-not even around the neighborhood, because of security worries. Sunday I must have walked a couple hours, laughing and talking with my translators much of the way. It felt almost normal. But coming home I was reminded how normal it's not. I was pushing a deadline for a live update for our Sunday morning program and had to run a couple blocks. The guards where we live saw me running and the only thing they could imagine was that something terrible had happened.
It never crossed their minds that I simply might be late.