The Digital Journalist
Route Michigan, Ramadi

by Scott Nelson

From the soldiers' rooftop position on top of the small Marine outpost called Snake Pit, election morning in the Iraqi City of Ramadi seemed eerily quiet. Two exhausted Marines inside explain that only two small, distant explosions had broken the tense calm earlier in this capital of the restive Anbar province.

Polls have been open for over an hour and as I look down the length of the main street (the military calls it "Route Michigan") I start to see small groups of people emerging from the early morning haze.

Sunni men cast their ballots in the national Iraqi elections on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2005 at the al Imam al Adel school in western Ramadi, Iraq. Turnout across Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, appears to be high, marking a huge contrast to the October referendum when there were very few votes cast.

Scott Nelson/WpN
Route Michigan is normally an IED- and car bomb-infested gauntlet that the U.S. military runs daily. Most buildings along it are filled with bullet holes and entire stretches resemble Grozny. When soldiers dare to stop, they frequently come under insurgent attack.

But at that moment Michigan looks about as normal as I could hope. With the ban on vehicular traffic the situation looks as good as it's going to get. Turning to my translator Qais I say, "I think we can do this."

"Let's do it," he replies with a smile.

"Do what?" asks one of the Marines.

"We're going to walk out to one of the polling sites," I reply, trying to sound casual. My words hit the Marines hard. Now wide-eyed, they ask if we're serious.

"Ummm, I mean, Sir, we wouldn't do that," one Marine says, the other shaking his head in disbelief. "At least you'll have your vest," the Marine says after a thoughtful pause, referring to the armor I had thrown on before heading up to the sniper attack-prone tower where I was now standing.

"Actually, this makes me more of a target when I'm out there so it stays here," I explain as Qais and I turn away from the two incredulous Marines to head down and prepare for our walk.

Three days earlier Qais, New York Times correspondent Kirk Semple and I had flown out to Camp Ramadi, a large military base on the western side of the city where we listened in our own state of shock as commanders explained their plan for the election: No U.S. or Iraqi soldiers anywhere near the polling sites, deferring instead to an Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI) plan for local tribal sheikhs to provide workers and security guards for Ramadi polls.

A positive step towards Iraqi sovereignty, it also represented a huge obstacle to our election coverage. "How in the hell are we going to get to a polling site?" we asked the military sheepishly, pointing out that "local gunmen" hired to secure polling stations likely translated to "armed insurgents."

An Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq worker helps an elderly Sunni man cast his ballot in the national Iraqi elections on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2005.

Scott Nelson/ WpN
"We might be able to get you close, but we won't be able to provide you with security," they warned. "You could walk to a nearby polling site but we certainly don't advise doing that."

In the lead up to the Dec. 15 elections, most foreign journalists planning to cover them outside Baghdad were relying on the U.S. for at least a flight out of the capitol. Travel on most roads outside Baghdad is too risky so the State Department organized several 2-day trips where journalists could visit various Iraqi cities, complete with military transport and security to the polls.

In Ramadi, however, the hands-off plan would prevent any such trips and the half-dozen media outlets that hadn't chosen to embed there faced some tough choices.

CNN and Fox chose to embed with Marines in Government Center, a bunker in central Ramadi that comes under daily attack. Having spent the October referendum there I knew the bunker mentality of the place, combined with the threat of violence in the neighborhood, would be insurmountable. CBS Radio and Danish TV pushed out on patrols that might take them near to polling sites on the north side of the city with the Army's 1-69.

For us, the best plan seemed to be going to the small Joint Command and Cooperation Center (JCC), an Iraqi Police/Emergency service and Marine outpost that lies on the main street 1 1/2 miles from Government Center. Bordering Snake Pit, it housed the city's head IECI supervisor and now was just six quiet blocks away from our goal: a polling station at the Imam al-Adel school.

Back in the briefing room at the Snake Pit Marine Capt. Rory Quinn is more encouraging than his upstairs lookouts.

"You can head out the back of the base here, and then cross this field to come out on Michigan," he says, pointing at the satellite map. "Then it's just a few blocks down and another block over. We'll be able to watch you almost the entire way. Also, we have a squad hiding in an Iraqi house near the school. Their translator reported that there are hundreds of voters."

Too western-looking Kirk has been discouraged by Qais from making the walk. Qais will speak with voters, take notes and bring back the necessary quotes for Kirk's story. I, wearing my best Iraqi shirt, will accompany him, trying my best to blend in.

Plan settled and accepting a small radio from the Marines as backup, we set off. Out of the base, across the field and onto Michigan, we are within a block of the school when a nervous looking Iraqi man eyeing us from a small alley moves forward.

"Are you the journalists sent by the Marines? Come with me," he whispers suspiciously as he motions to the alley.

"Ok, here's where it all goes horribly wrong," I think frantically, picturing myself in an orange jumpsuit on a videotape message as I look to Qais, who seems even more unnerved than I. After a few words in Arabic, however, Qais looks relieved and explains this is a Marine translator who had been sent to help.

"Why weren't we told you would be waiting?" I ask.

"Security," he replies cryptically and turns to lead us the last few hundred yards to the school.

A few minutes later another wrinkle emerges.

"The election workers say we can enter but you can't bring in your cameras," explains Qais, nervously eyeing the crowd of curious onlookers now gathering around us.

A smiling Sunni teenager holds up his ink-stained finger to show he participated in the national Iraqi elections on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2005.

Scott Nelson/WpN
A few agonizing minutes later Qais has managed to talk our way in but has negotiated less than 15 minutes of access for us both.

"We must hurry," he warns in a hushed voice, "the election manager is afraid for our safety and wants us to go quickly."

Once inside we are led to a small classroom prepared as a poll. In it is a ballot box and around the outside of the rooms are dozens of male Sunni Arab voters finding their names on registration lists, casting their votes and dipping their fingers in indelible ink. Noticeably, there are no Iraqi women anywhere.

I rush to make as many different frames as I can in the short time I have: an Iraqi father casting his vote with his son; an elderly Iraqi man leaning over to six inches above his ballot, workers helping him make out the party names and an older Iraqi security guard sitting with an AK-47 at the entrance of the center.

Soon, an Iraqi man approaches me and asks me quietly where I'm from. I whisper I'm an American and he flashes a smile and booms loudly in English: "You are a hero then for coming here to cover these elections. Thank you!"

Hurriedly bidding farewell to the Marine translator a few minutes later we head back across Michigan, which is now filled with hundreds of children taking advantage of the holiday to play soccer.

Back at the JCC a few triumphant minutes later we watch as the CNN reporter, decked out in his helmet and flak jacket, reports that two explosions have been heard in downtown Ramadi. He hasn't been able to venture outside Government Center, he says, but there are reports that voter turnout in Ramadi is high.

© Scott Nelson

Scott Nelson is a freelance photojournalist based in Cairo, Egypt and is represented by World Picture Network. He has just returned from a three-month assignment for The New York Times in Iraq during which he covered both the October referendum and the historic Dec. 15th national election.

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