AR RAMADI, Iraq -- With each passing day, the people of Iraq take another step toward self-sufficiency and away from the horrors and oppression they have lived under for most of their lives. On Oct. 15, the people of Ar Ramadi participated in the referendum vote on a proposed national constitution. If approved, it would be a major leap forward in the struggle for democracy.The city of Ar Ramadi, the capital of the often-turbulent Al Anbar province in western Iraq, has been called the key to the Coalition Forces’ efforts in the country. During the last national election in January, approximately 800 people voted; a miniscule percentage of eligible voters in a city of more than 300,000. With a population that is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, convincing this region that it is in their best interest to vote and that it is safe to participate in the fledgling democracy were the two keys to increasing the turnout for the elections, said Maj. Dan Wagner, team commander for Detachment 2, Team 4, 6th Civil Affairs Group, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment.“We took a hands-off approach to the elections this time around,” he said. “We were here to assist the Iraqis conduct their own election. The Sunnis saw that they missed an opportunity when they didn’t vote last time. What we don’t want is for people who want to vote to feel threatened and not come to the polls because they are scared.”Leading up to the electionIn order to create a safe environment for the elections, Coalition Forces from all over the region, including the Marines from 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, spent the days leading up to the election filling sand bags, building bunkers, helping the Iraqi Security Forces and Independent Election Council of Iraq prepare voting centers. They also took security over-watch positions and spread information to the population about how and where the voting will take place. These efforts, along with those of the local government and ISF were all coordinated to increase the population’s willingness to participate in the historic referendum. “The Iraqis need to see a just process, a fair election,” said Wagner. “I think it’s important to establish a secure environment for launching an initiative like this. We’re trying to rebuild a country and conduct an election at the same time.”In Ar Ramadi, much of the Marines’ effort was spent protecting voting areas while the ISF and IECI prepared polling stations. With help from the battalion’s detachment CAG units, eight different polling sites were selected and spread throughout the city. The sites were selected for various reasons, including their proximity to large population centers and their ability to be protected from attack. “The Iraqi people don’t want us in their country,” said Cpl. Robert Shuman, a driver for CAG. “To convince them that we’re going to leave someday, we need the ISF to step up and really do a good job. I think they will and that’s another reason we are going to use a hands-off approach this time.”As for the local population, most of them realize that democracy is coming, whether they take part in it or not. Although not everyone is a fan of the new constitution and regime, they understand that violence is not going to intimidate Coalition Forces or the ISF, said members of CAG.“A large number of the local population see this election as a way to grab a bigger piece of power,” said Wagner. “But they want to see their own people stand up and protect them from the insurgency, the terrorists. Without secure elections, the people might not see these elections as legitimate.” As the elections drew closer, local insurgent groups increased their attacks on Marine positions in the city. Increased numbers of improvised explosive devices were found as well. Other insurgent attacks included mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms and has kept the city under a blanket of violence that has yet to cease. Marines with the battalion patrolled the city, finding many hidden IEDs and disrupting more than one enemy plan during the week leading up to the election. However, the threat of violence was still hanging over the city when the polls opened Saturday morning. Election DayAfter 24-hour days by both the Marines and ISF, and long hours from the IECI volunteers who were flown in from Baghdad the night before, Election Day was set to begin. During the previous night and evening, Marines maintained security positions while ISF workers used more than 30,000 sand bags to shore up buildings and jersey barriers to block off roads. Although the Iraqi government had declared the election a national holiday and barred all non-emergency vehicle traffic during election hours, the election officials wanted to take no chances. At 7 a.m. Oct. 15, the polling sites opened with little fanfare. Some sites around the city had a few hundred voters stop in throughout the day, but most were empty as the day went on. Violence was scattered and unorganized and few people were hurt. The polls were open, and the people of Ar Ramadi voted with their feet – they want no part of the new government. “They’ve said the new constitution doesn’t stress their Arab identity, doesn’t make the Sunni’s benefit from their geographical area,” said Wagner. “They don’t feel there is an interest in their well being. The people need to have a concrete reason to believe that the democratic process works for them to really get behind it. I think this election will give them that.”According to 2nd Lt. Jordan Reese, the platoon commander for 2nd Platoon, Company K, the success of the election is more than a count of the people who came out and voted.“We had two objectives out here,” he said. “Number one, provide security for the election, and number two, assist the Iraqi people with these elections. I think we did everything we could to pave the way for success here. This election, this democracy, is what we’re over here for; we have to set them up for success. It’s more about the safety of the voters. If they wanted to come and vote they could and felt safe.”When the polls closed at 7 p.m. that evening, tallies showed that little more than 2,000 people voted on the referendum. It was a far cry from the massive showings that voting centers in Baghdad, Fallujah and the vast majority other cities experienced, but it was an improvement from January. More importantly, at least in the eyes of the battalion’s Marines who helped the ISF and IECI plan and execute these elections, was the fact that the Iraqi people stepped up and conducted all the groundwork and handled all the on-site, ground-level security for the polling sites. In terms of Ar Ramadi, success lies in the appearance of fairness and Iraqi stewardship rather than the actual number of voters. “I think the Marines were very successful in placing the ISF and IECI in the polling sites and letting them do their job, “ said Maj. Brad Tippett, operations chief for the battalion. “The Iraqis who helped during the election showed both the desire and the ability to do their job without the Marines’ assistance. They legitimately had the skills and leadership to provide security and assistance to those polling sites.“Our battalion’s mission was to provide the opportunity for local citizens to exercise their right to vote. It wasn’t for a certain number of people to vote or to force them to come to polls. What we demonstrated as a result of this election is that an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem is better then a coalition solution to an Iraqi problem,” said Tippett.With another election just two months away, the Marines of 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines are already applying what they learned this week in the planning for the next vote. The battalion is scheduled to begin more coordinated training with the ISF by assigning select ISF platoons to work with Marine companies. This is so that the Iraqis can learn first- hand the skills and knowledge they need to act independently of the Marines when Coalition Forces leave Iraq.