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Shiite and Sunni, young and old: an Iraqi family's journey to the ballot box

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When they think back to elections under Saddam Hussein, members of the Amari family laugh. Sure they went to the ballot box - motivated by fear.

"There was no choice - just the threat of punishment," says Hala al-Amari, a college student who sports a short-sleeved pink blouse and copper-highlighted hair.

She is one among several generations of the Amari family who voted Thursday despite the threat of violence, choosing who would govern Iraq for the next four years - and each choosing his or her own personal favorite.

Thursday up to 15 million Iraqis streamed to the polls - many of them, like the Amaris, moved together through the streets as a clan. Voting was truly a family affair.

Shortly before 9 a.m., the Amaris set out for the two-mile hike to the polling station. It's a day for celebration, and Hala's mother, Inam, is well attired for the occasion. Unlike the Islamic dress she often wears, she is decked out in a smart pantsuit. And her hair and makeup are carefully done.

As they walk along, she hands out candies, and occasionally claps and sings "Mansoura Baghdad" (Victory Baghdad). It's something of a war song that was composed to arouse patriotism. But this battle, "please God," she intones, will be at the ballot box alone.

Violence came sporadically Thursday, putting only the smallest of dents in the election in comparison with January's interim vote, in which 40 people died.

As they approach the school, security checks begin. They pass through four layers of checkpoints, where they are searched and asked for identification cards. There seem to be as many police in the streets as there are voters. Hala raises her eyebrows knowingly: "It's better this way."

Family differ over whom to vote for

If families like the Amaris are any indication, voting patterns are not entirely predictable. Mostly but not exclusively Shiite, their opinions are like a palette of colors - a sampling of the promise and problems of Iraq's democracy-in-the-making.

On election eve, Hala says she is voting for Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite who is a favored winner.

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