BAGHDAD, IRAQ – With the Iraqi elections less than a week away, all eyes are focused on the likelihood of “spectacular attacks,” the intimidation of voters and whether Sunni Muslims, who have long requested a postponement, will show up at the polls at all.
But one of the most common questions one hears from Iraqis—both Sunni and Shiite, from those who will vote to those who swear they won’t—is: Who are the candidates?
“I have no idea who these people are,” said Adil Guzzaz, 47, a Shiite who owns a small grocery store off Karada Street. He and his friends fear a religious extremist government in Iraq and say a military leader would best deal with the chaos reigning in the country. “We are all religious in Iraq but we want an honest, educated leader, not someone crying about what happened 2,000 years ago,” Guzzaz said. “It doesn’t matter if he’s Sunni, Shia or Kurdish.”
Iraq’s elections are scheduled for Jan. 30, when a 275-member National Assembly will be chosen to draft the country’s first constitution, to be completed by August and followed by national elections in December.
For now, there is confusion about the candidates, there are disagreements among Iraqis about participating or boycotting and there is the ever-present fear of violence on election day.
“Who are these people?”
The Shiites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq’s 26 million people, are largely expected to dominate the elections over the minority Sunnis who held most of the power during Saddam Hussein’s regime. The Shiite spiritual leader, Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who is widely respected and has been a voice of reason for Shiites, has requested that all Shiites vote.
Sunnis make up about 20 percent of Iraq’s population and have so far threatened to boycott the election, claiming it should be postponed, that it will not be legitimate and that it is designed to extend the U.S. occupation. The request for a delay in the election, as well as for a pullout date from the U.S., has been largely ignored. Despite an official call by the Iraq Islamic Party and Association of Muslim Scholars to boycott the elections, not all Sunnis agree; some see this as an essential way to participate in the new government of Iraq.
Sadiq Obed Al Dulaimi and his family are Sunnis from Fallujah who are trying to inspire voting among everyone in the Dulaimi Tribe.
“This is very important for our family,” said Dulaimi, who is a 32-year-old father of three. “We sit with people and say, ‘What is your opinion? Where is your voice?’ Everybody I see, I say ‘You will go?’ They say, ‘Yes, I must go.’ So far, we have 562 people in Baghdad who will vote.”
Dulaimi said he has encountered many people in Fallujah who refuse to participate while others, like his uncle, will not say. But for Dulaimi, it is the only choice for change he can imagine at this time, and working with Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, for whom he will vote, seems a good option. “We need an end to this life,” he said. “If there is some death [during the election], no problem, but we cannot live like this anymore. Either I leave Iraq or I will be killed here. Right now these are my choices.”
Yazin al Tikriti, a 21-year-old Sunni who works for a cell phone company in Baghdad, said he would not waver. Will he be voting? “No, never,” he said. “The Sunnis say you must not vote and I will not. This election is no good.”
Others feel just as strongly but for different reasons. Yusrah Naif, a 52-year-old Shiite who works at a small store on an American base, said she has no idea who the candidates are and is more concerned about security than an election of strangers. “Who are these people? Where do they come from?” she asked. “Put yourself in my place, who would you vote for?”
The fear factor
Around Baghdad, billboards espouse the benefits of voting with an image of a hand dropping a ballot into a box. Pasted on walls and at bus stops are smaller signs advertising a number, some featuring a smiling face, many showing popular Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, which advocates the Shiite coalition, number 169 on the ballot. There is little or no mention of any candidate platform in the election propaganda, which tends more toward general proclamations such as, “To honor the blood of thousands of martyrs, elect one Iraq.”
Some radio and TV programs refer to the elections, airing advertisements and even some debates, but with limited electricity some Iraqis say they haven’t been able to listen. Newspapers also speak of the upcoming event, though often only in broad terms, since many candidates are still too afraid to go public.
Prime Minister Allawi has made proclamations that some parts of Iraq will be unsafe regardless of the security buildup. Officials have put a ban on some car traffic to offset the chance of car bombs and the airport will close for up to three days around the election. There will be up to 300,000 people guarding the polls, with American forces on an outer perimeter to be called upon on a need-only basis, officials say.
Last week, members of the Iraqi police, Iraqi National Guard and U.S. forces gathered at a police station to hammer out details regarding the security of western Baghdad. In a crowded room, men went point-by-point over polling stations: How many are there? Are there enough men to cover them all? Is there adequate outer protection (barriers and razor wire) and are there enough weapons? The U.S. is adamant about playing a supporting role in the elections, leaving the job of securing polls up to the Iraqis.
“We collectively have enough force to adequately ensure the safety for the majority of the Iraqi people,” said Col. Mark Milley, of the Second Brigade 10th Mountain Division, which is helping with logistics of the election. “Right now they [Iraqi people] are nervous but they want to vote. If they see the Iraqi National Guard and your police force, they will be reassured,” Milley told the gathered officers. “The enemy will try to attack this election but he can be defeated and he will be defeated.”
Despite the meeting of these different factions, and the acceptance that the election will indeed go forward, there is still hesitation among prominent officials. Colonel Roaf Mohammad Faik, a Sunni who commands more than 1,000 Iraqi National Guard forces, is doing his best to organize the elections, despite his uncertainty about the timing.
“This election will not be successful because the people think there will be no safety,” Faik said. “People hear there will be VBIEDs [vehicle-borne improvised explosive device] and bombs maybe at the polls. But if it is not at the polls, maybe it will be further down the streets or at their house. The more delay, the more people will vote.”
Faik said large numbers of Iraqis were leaving the country, fearing general violence or reprisals for voting. Of those who remain and decide to vote—a number difficult to pinpoint at this time—he predicted 90 percent of votes would come from Shia voters and only 10 percent from the Sunni population. As for the success of his troops in protecting Iraqis, Faik hopes for the best. “Inshallah”—”If Allah wills it”—the people will be safe. Inshallah the country will be in good hands.
Threats aimed at intimidating people who may vote in the elections range from graffiti scrawled on concrete walls to much more severe threats: Workers at Yarmouk Hospital found a dead body hanging on a meat hook with a note saying “This is what will happen to you if you vote,” said Lt. Col. Mike Abazene, who patrols the area as part of the 10th MNT 2-15 AFR.
Yet thousands upon thousands of Iraqis are expected to be at the polls Jan. 30, even if they haven’t yet figured out what it means or for whom they will vote.
Jamalla Ahmed, a 31-year-old fruit vendor, is still deciding who will get his vote. He has seen a few advertisements on walls and a couple of interviews on television but doesn’t know many of the candidates. The ones he’s heard speak haven’t said anything about what he thinks is most important to Iraq: security. “I want to hear someone talk about security and stability. It doesn’t matter if he is Sunni, Shiite or Kurd—we are all Muslims—but he must be an intelligent man and he must lead us to peace. I haven’t heard anyone say that yet. But that man will get my vote.”
Zelie Pollon, a freelance writer from Santa Fe, N.M., is in Iraq for the second time. The first time she interviewed more than 100 Iraqi citizens for the independent Baghdad Project. Reprinted with permission from Alternet.