A new future for Iraq?

The world is watching Iraq’s historic elections. But what do Iraqis think? Borzou Daragahi reports from Baghdad.

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By  Anil Bhoyrul Published  January 30, 2005

A new future for Iraq?|~|iraq4-body-upload.jpg|~|ENGAGING THE PEOPLE: Iyad Allawi, Interim Prime Minister, on the campaign trail.|~|The world is watching Iraq’s historic elections. But what do Iraqis think? Borzou Daragahi reports from Baghdad. Khaled Dulaymi’s spacious house is filled with darkness and cold. He lost his job in the information ministry when the Americans arrived in 2003, and he’s been having a tough time earning money for black market kerosene and electricity as a repairman of generators. He is angry, miserable and scared, and like many member of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority, he says he will vote with his feet on January 30, the date of Iraq’s parliamentary elections. “Many people thought when the Americans came … they would change it into heaven,” says the 40-year-old. “But now people say it would have been better if they had left us with Saddam Hussein. I see all the political parties and they’re just empty. All of them are from outside Iraq. None of them have honour. I will not vote.” Amid the violence and confusion of contemporary Iraq, there is a sense among Iraqis of differing political stripes that the political game has already been fixed. That forces beyond their control have set in place an election mechanism ||**|||~|iraq3-body-upload.jpg|~|US BACKING: A American soldier hands leaflets to local Iraqis in Baghdad, encouraging them to vote.|~|that will keep in power Iraqis Americans already know and trust, the ones who form the bulk of the interim government. Parties led by former exiles and powerful Kurds — the same groups tapped by the US-led authority to take control of the government after the 2003 invasion — stand to perform well in the upcoming vote. “The problem is most of the government officials are running for the elections,” says Mishan al-Jabouri, of the Iraqi Homeland Party. Iraq’s worst troubles might come after the election, when triumphant Shias and Kurds may crack down mercilessly on the Sunni Arab insurgency currently roiling the country, driving more of them toward political extremism. In a worst-case scenario, a civil war breaks out between Iraq’s US-backed government of mostly exiles, and ragtag groups of Sunni Arabs drawn from Iraq’s heartland as well as from other Muslim countries. Just the scenario Al Qaeda figures such as Jordanian militant Abu Musab Al Zarqawi have envisioned. Some positive surprises could emerge from the upcoming elections. More Sunni Arabs than expected could vote. A number of parties have local ties, ethnic support or tribal roots. One US diplomat said privately that he expected Iraq’s decades-old Communist Party, which has run a relatively boisterous campaign despite having limited access to resources, to surprise analysts with a strong nationwide showing. But groups with resources from abroad like Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi list and the Shia-dominated United Iraqi Alliance have flooded the airwaves and plastered streets with their ads and posters and dominated public discourse throughout the country. The alliance also appears to be getting campaign help from the beyond; it includes an image of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country’s highest spiritual leader, on its ubiquitous posters. “This list is a smaller version of Iraq and this is why it has been blessed by the religious authorities,” explains Haithem Al-Husseini, an adviser to Abdel Aziz-Hakim, a mid-ranking Shia cleric and top name on the 240-name alliance list. “This election is the most important of all the elections, that’s why you have the involvement of the religious authorities.” Enthusiasm for the elections is palpable in the country’s Shia south, in cities like Nasiriyah where Saddam Hussein mowed down thousands of men. ||**|||~|51929035-body-upload.jpg|~|OVERBEARING: Children play beneath the campaign posters of political parties.|~|Iraqi Shias living there on the edge of the country’s fabled marshes look forward to asserting their power in the upcoming elections. “People want to participate,” said Ali Dujeidi, a mechanical engineer who planned to cast his ballot for the Communist Party. “All people share this common sense. It’s not a matter of ideology. Everyone, even simple men, think the election is important and that everything will be changed after the election.” In retrospect, the election organisers’ worst mistake may have been to treat Iraq as a single electoral district, virtually guaranteeing a lopsided parliament with power weighted in favour of Kurds and Shia, to the disadvantage of the Sunni Arabs drifting toward the insurgency. In contrast to the Shia’s enthusiasm, many of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, who feel they have been cut out of power with Saddam’s downfall, either mistrust the process or are too frightened by the wrath of insurgents to vote. Despite widespread revulsion at insurgents’ tactics — which include televised beheadings and car-bombings of civilian sites like mosques — many Sunni Arabs are sympathetic to resistance aims of driving the Americans out and destabilising an interim government led by exiles. “Let them have their elections and win,” said a Sunni Arab engineer of 38 who called himself Abu Abdullah. “It will be an illegitimate government. Legitimate elections cannot be held because the previous government has not yet stepped down. I voted for Saddam. When he says he has resigned, I’ll take part in elections.” Though election workers and political parties are virtually invisible in Sunni Arab provinces like Anbar and Nineweh, insurgents in the Sunni triangle have had no problem spreading their message through a steady campaign of violence and intimidation. Death threats and blood-curdling graffiti have terrified even those who planned to vote. Mazen Hafidh, a 26-year-old labourer in the Sunni triangle city of Baqouba, said he was all set to vote until he saw a flier warning that anyone simply out on the streets during election day would be killed. “What shall I do?” he said. “Will my family let me go and vote?” Even those eager to vote faced mounting confusion. Few parties had publicised any but the top names on their lists of candidates and no locales had been designated polling places. Nearly 8000 candidates are running for the 275 seats. ||**|||~|iraq-body-upload.jpg|~||~|Security problems have plagued the elections. According to State Department statistics, Iraqi security forces number 125,000 far fewer than the 271,000 deemed sufficient for the country. In the Anbar province and west Baghdad, Iraqi and US officials concede little election preparation has taken place. Even in the supposedly safe Kurdish provinces election-season violence has erupted, with attacks on officials in Erbil and Dohuk. In a startling sign of how bad Iraq’s security has deteriorated, in Erbil — within the well-protected pro-American Kurdish north - security officials were frisking children as they entered a park to enjoy the Eid Al-Adha holidays on two weeks ago. Aside from the lack of Sunni participation and the escalating violence, some analysts argue that Iraqis don’t yet understand the concept of democracy. “The ideas of coalitions and of using parliamentary powers to leverage things are not intuitive,” said a senior US diplomat, speaking anonymously. “Their whole life experience is that power is indivisible. You either have it or you don’t.” Originally, US officials hoped television could educate voters about the parties, civil society and the political process. But with electricity output well below pre-war levels television has been useless. Winter fuel shortages have also plagued the country, forcing Iraqis to scavenge for raw ingredients of life rather than focusing on political issues. Kerosene and diesel production are well below targets, say the State Department, and many Iraqis who can’t afford black-market prices spend whole days scrounging for cooking and heating oil. In the absence of a real political culture, analysts fear Iraqis will simply fall back on old power structures. “As a tribal society, they’re going to give their vote for the man of the same tribe, even if he’s not qualified to represent them,” said Nabeal Younis, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. Or they’ll listen to the word of their marja, their supreme religious guide. The alliance has been running non-stop election propaganda on its Al Furat satellite TV station. Many of its leaders spent decades of exile in Iran, and much of Al Furat’s programming — such as interviews with citizens voicing an intention to vote for the alliance — resembles state-controlled Iranian television. An independent election commission is supposed to be enforcing rules and referring violations to the judicial system. But despite complaints about tactics such as using religious imagery, candidates don’t seem to fear the commission. Officials admit they are too busy protecting workers that could number up to 200,000 at 5220 voting centres on poll day from insurgents to monitor spending and unfair campaigning by candidates. “Most ... parties say they’re getting money from their own members, and we have no ability to check on the parties and to investigate,” said Harith Mohammad Hassan, the commission’s deputy director. “If we depended on such things, maybe we’d have no election.” Despite all the caveats about the elections American officials inside the Green Zone say they are an important step for Iraq. “The elections are not a panacea,” US Ambassador John Negroponte said during an embassy luncheon with a small group of western reporters. “They’re important, but they’re not the only answer. There are security issues. There are economic issues. But the fact of elections is very important. This will be a transition from an appointed to an elected government.” In the end, it is likely Shias will have control of Baghdad and Kurds their autonomous region. Perhaps the biggest election losers will be those Iraqis whose genuine homegrown movements and moderate voices will be jostled aside. Over at the offices of the National Democratic Party, a cold breeze wafts through. Hashem Shabli, a party leader, apologises for the lack of heating kerosene — available at a premium on the black market — as he prepares glasses of tea and shows off party campaign literature. The red ink on the posters bleeds into the yellow. Shabli admits his party’s posters and papers will not match the flashy TV commercials and mosque-supported campaigns of the two main exile parties. “Our commitment to our principles ... has given our party its position in the minds of the people,” he said. “It has [given] us respect. That’s something you can’t buy.” ||**||

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