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Iraq Ballot Count Begins

A day after voting in their first free election in half a century, jubilant Iraqis sifted through ballots, tallying the results millions hope will lead to democracy and hasten the departure of 150,000 American troops.

Iraqis awoke with the sparkle of freedom in their eyes, reports CBS Evening News Anchor Dan Rather from Baghdad. By the time the polls had closed, much of Iraq had become a huge street party.

In his first news conference since the elections, Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi called on Iraqis to join together to build a society shattered by decades of war, tyranny, economic sanctions and military occupation.

"The terrorists now know that they cannot win," he said Monday.

The final results of Sunday's election aren't expected for days, but the country is already focusing on goals almost as challenging as the election itself: forming a new governing coalition, then writing a constitution and winning trust. Some fear the vote outcome could further alienate the once-powerful Sunni Muslim minority - many of whom apparently stayed away from the polls.

In other developments:

  • The downing of a British military transport plane north of Baghdad caused the biggest single loss of British lives since the start of the Iraq war, Britain's foreign minister said Monday. The British government says nine Royal Air Force personnel and one soldier are missing and believed killed in Sunday's crash of an RAF C-130 Hercules in Iraq. The previous highest single loss of British lives in Iraq was eight. An Iraqi militant group claimed responsibility for downing the plane. Britain's Ministry of Defense said officials were still investigating the causes of the crash. "We can't confirm any of that," a spokesman said in response to the Ansar al-Islam claim. "People on the ground are investigating."
  • Iraq's interior minister said Monday that insurgents used a handicapped child as one of the suicide bombers who launched attacks on election day. Falah al-Naqib told reporters in Baghdad that 38 attacks were carried out on polling stations in Iraq on Sunday and that one of the suicide bombings was carried out by a disabled child.

    The electoral commission says turnout overall among the estimated 14 million eligible Iraqi voters appears to be higher than the 57 percent, or roughly 8 million, that was predicted before the vote. But it would be some time before any precise turnout figure is confirmed.

    A U.S. diplomat, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, said "good anecdotal information" indicated that "Sunni participation was considerably lower than participation by the other groups, especially in areas which have seen a great deal of violence."

    The low Sunni turnout raised fears that the group that drives the insurgency could grow ever more alienated.

    But one of the many Marines involved in providing security for the election process says the high turnout of the election contained a message for Iraqi insurgents.

    "They think they have the support of the people," said Lt. Col. Bob Durkin, of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, 24th Expeditionary Unit, in a CBS News interview. "They [the insurgents] have to see that they don't."

    Iraqi police and coalition forces worked round-the-clock for days to provide election security, and many are exhausted - a situation Durkin suggests could tempt insurgents to become even more active.

    "You may see a brief spike in [insurgent] activity," says Durkin, "but it will only be temporary."

    South of Baghdad in north Babil province - in the so-called "Triangle of Death", CBS News Correspondent Cami McCormick reports heavy security was in effect as ballots were picked up by Iraqi police SWAT teams.

    Sweeping into Eskan, about 30 miles south of Baghdad in north Babil, heavily-armed Iraqi officers of the Hillah fast reaction team cleared the streets surrounding the election office as they loaded the ballots into trucks to be taken to a secure location to be guarded until they can be moved to Baghdad.

    The ballots, reports McCormick, had already been counted by election workers huddled around kerosene lamps in the police station, making do without electricity, with U.S. Marines camped out in the building for protection.

    "Everybody here was excited," Marine Maj. Bill Ray Moore of New Castle, Indiana, said of the Iraqis who gathered to count the votes.

    On Monday, vehicles again wove their way down Baghdad's streets, and the most of the nation was calm. But most traffic was still being blocked from crossing the city's main bridges, indicating security was still in place.

    The election was hailed as a success around the globe, with President Bush declaring: "The world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East." Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Iraqis showed "the courage to stand up to (violence) and we should support them."

    France and Germany, two of the strongest critics of the U.S.-led mission in Iraq, also welcomed the seemingly strong election turnout. A statement sent out by the German government described it as a sign of "the firm determination of the majority of Iraqis" to take charge of their nation's future.

    The 275-member National Assembly, elected for an 11-month term, will draft a permanent constitution, and if the document is approved, Iraqis will vote for a permanent government in December. If the document is rejected, Iraqis will repeat the whole process again.

    The ticket endorsed by the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was the pre-voting favorite, while Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's slate was also considered strong. Once results are in, it could take weeks of backroom deals before a prime minister and government are picked by the new assembly.

    If that government can draw in the minority Sunni Arabs, the country could stabilize, hastening the day when 150,000 U.S. troops can go home.

    With the polls barely closed, international debate immediately turned to just that issue. On Monday, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid plans to call on Bush to outline an exit strategy for Iraq. And Downer said his country will keep troops only if the country's newly elected government wants them.

    And in comments to CBS' "Face The Nation," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would not say whether U.S. forces would leave the country in great numbers now that the vote is complete. President Bush also did not mention any U.S. military withdrawals in his statement.

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