- Violence and fear is growing in Iraq ahead of next Sunday's
- "I will not be voting because it is a useless charade,"
says Salah Abrahim as he pushes his car towards a petrol station to get
fuel in a bustling street in the Karrada district of Baghdad, a sector
of the capital city populated primarily by Shia Muslims.
- "Any clever person can see that this war and its
expenditures would lead to a government that opposes the Americans."
- Others on the same street are more sanguine about Iraq's
first free elections in more than half a century and will obey the fatwa
issued by the Shia spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the
most revered religious leader in Iraq and a supporter of the elections.
As the majority of the Shia in Iraq live by his edicts, it is likely that
his representatives will gain the most seats in the transitional parliament
and that is a powerful spur for younger Shia voters like Alia Halaf who
can only remember the oppression of the Saddam Hussein period and the hegemony
of the Ba'ath Party. "I will vote no matter how many car bombs are
used," he explains. "My 17-year-old neighbour was kidnapped,
so I hope the elections will bring us more security. They simply must."
- Abrahim and Halaf represent two contrasting views from
a capital which is in one of the four provinces where voting will be dangerous
and, to all intents and purposes, undemocratic. They are the two extremes
of this election on which so many hopes are pinned.
- Hope, expectation and fear are the emotions that are
coursing through Iraq this weekend. The hope is driven by the fact that
opinion polls show that 85% of Iraqis are anxious to vote, balanced by
the fact that perhaps only half that number will actually manage to get
through to one of the 5000 specially prepared polling stations. The expectation
is that, despite all the problems, there will be a sufficiently high turnout
to ensure that enough votes are cast to enable the new 275-seat National
Assembly to come into being. But everywhere throughout this war-torn country
is the fear that insurgents and foreign fighters will attempt to disrupt
the process by causing chaos and intimidating the electorate. Speaking
after suicide bombers had killed 25 people in two attacks in Baghdad last
week, interim prime minister Iyad Allawi admitted yesterday that the attackers
would "try to make the political process fail" and that the security
forces would be hard pushed to contain them.
- The admission comes at a time of heightened tensions,
with Sunni terrorist groups targeting the Shia population in a last-ditch
attempt to dissuade them from voting as part of a wider campaign to create
an atmosphere of fear and panic. Yesterday, the rebel group Ansar al-Sunnah
said it had shot dead 15 Iraqi National Guard members it abducted northwest
of Baghdad this month. In some parts of the country, especially in the
capital, fear is taking grip. People might want to vote but they also dread
the consequences. Last Wednesday, five suicide car bombs detonated across
the capital in nearly 90 minutes, killing at least 26 people and the following
day two polling stations were attacked with mortars and gunfire in Beji,
along with a school which was being set up as a polling station. Shops
distributing polling papers along with the monthly food ration cards have
been burned down and their owners attacked.
- For the US-led coalition, a successful election could
herald a return to normality, although senior commanders are not putting
too much faith in Allawi's assertion that the "elections will play
a big role in calming the situation and enable the next government to face
the upcoming challenges in a decisive manner." For the majority Shia
population, repressed during the Saddam era, a good turnout will enhance
their chances of dominating the new assembly and finally getting their
place in the sun.
- The Kurds in the north feel much the same way and will
vote in force for their parties which have formed a united front. They
enjoyed a measure of stability and self-confidence during the 1990s when
they were under the protection of the no-fly zones imposed by Britain and
the US, but it is the Sunni population who bring the other extreme to the
equation. Their main party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, has already decided
to boycott the election and there is bound to be a low turnout in Sunni
areas; they represent 50% of the population in the four provinces where
voting is already expected to be low - Nineveh, Anbar, Salahadin and Baghdad
- which together make up a quarter of Iraq's population. In Mosul, Iraq's
third largest city, 700 officials of the Independent Commission for Elections,
including the head and members of the committee and polling staff, have
resigned after receiving death threats.
- In a bid to end the boycott, Iraq's defence minister
Hazem Saalan has called on Egypt to approach Sunni leaders urging them
to participate in the poll, but in Iraq the request will fall on deaf ears.
Some Sunnis have already made their feelings clear by tearing up their
ballots. "That is what I think of this mess," said one young
Sunni as he threw the torn pieces of his ballot paper into the mud on Baghdad's
Sa'adoun Street, "Allawi-Bush will stay in power anyhow!"
- To add to the complications, the process of voting has
been obscured to the point where many voters will have little clue about
the candidates until they see the ballot papers next Sunday. These will
list party coalitions, with only a few running independently, but the majority
of the parties have removed the names of their candidates from the list.
An estimated 5000 names will not be recorded until the day itself. This
has nothing to do with unnecessary secrecy but everything to do with necessary
security as at least eight candidates have been assassinated in the past
few days. But with more than 83 lists on the ballot, each with up to 275
unnamed candidates, confusion reigns among many Iraqis who will be expected
to vote in order to fill the seats in the new assembly.
- After the count, the seats will be allocated by exact
proportional representation and, as the whole country is being treated
as a single constituency, each party group will get the same proportion
of seats as it receives in the ballot. As the Sunnis will either refuse
to take part in the election or will be intimidated by the violence the
process will tell against them. Already they only represent 20% of the
electorate and there is bound to be a diminution of their representation
and that will play into the hands of the Shias whose parties are standing
under the coalition list known as the United Iraqi Alliance. Also expected
to do well is Allawi's Iraqi List which represents the interests of the
interim administration which will attract voters like Ghassan, a young
biology teacher in Diyallah province. "I don't know who is nominated
for them and I worry about how all of this will succeed but I will vote
because I think it will be good," he admits. "We've never had
an election in my life.
- To protect those who want to vote, whatever the circumstances,
the interim administration has put in place a wide range of security measures.
The country's borders will be closed from Saturday, January 29 - the eve
of polling - for three days and mobile and satellite phone services will
be taken off-air to prevent them being used as triggers for suicide bombers.
Traffic around polling stations will also be controlled and each will be
protected by three rings of heavy security to lessen the risk of car bombs.
A dawn-to-dusk curfew has already been instituted and travel on the main
highways is being limited to essential services with special permits, but
even these strict measures are not expected to keep the determined terrorists
at bay. Bowing to the inevitable fact that the suicide bomber will always
get through, the ministry of health has announced that hospitals will be
on high alert throughout the day to deal with the expected casualties.
And that is the unhappy bottom line for this election.
- Carlos Valenzuela, the head of the UN's election advisory
team, has voiced the hope that despite the fear which is all too apparent
all over Iraq it is important "to convince Iraqis that this is a real
election and not a Mickey Mouse election". However, as he has already
seen in places like East Timor where there were similar problems during
the period of transition, he also admits violence could easily derail the
process. Officially the responsibility for overseeing the security on election
day falls to the fledgling Iraqi security forces, but the reality is that
the election stands or falls on the capacity of the US-led coalition forces.
The US and British garrisons have both been reinforced - there are now
150,000 US troops in the country - and commanders will keep their forces
on high alert throughout the election period. They know that for all the
rhetoric of Iraqification they hold primacy in security matters, a point
that was made clear when a senior US commander earlier declared that Iraqi
policemen were "just lambs being sent to slaughter". Even Sir
Jeremy Greenstock, the former British representative to the coalition authority,
admitted last week that the security situationwas "irremediable and
- In its short and troubled history, Iraq is no stranger
to the turmoil caused by internecine strife. The country only came into
being in the aftermath of the first world war when Britain and France carved
out spheres of influence - previously it was the Ottoman province of Mesopotamia
- and in that time it has witnessed the assassination of leaders such as
King Faisal II in 1958 and the long period of Saddam's dictatorship. Small
wonder its people have an ambivalent attitude to the forthcoming elections.
Most want a return to normality and everyone wants to see the removal of
the occupying forces but they also fear what the future might bring.
- As palm fronds blow in the breeze at the end of a grey
day in Baghdad, a policeman who asks to be called Ali, pulls his black
ski-mask further up his face as he articulates the conundrum facing his
people. "I think most Iraqis just want security and jobs," he
says. "I don't care which party wins, we just want peace and a better
living situation. But I don't see how January 30 will change any of this."
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