Dying for Democracy

Violence and fear is growing in Iraq ahead of next Sunday’s vote. Dahr Jamail, in Baghdad, Foreign Editor David Pratt, in Basra, and Diplomatic Editor Trevor Royle report

“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 situation was “irremediable and ineradicable”.

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.”