Violence continues to plague Iraq’s capital on the eve of the election, but still some residents are determined to vote. By Dahr Jamail
As violence continues unabated in the lead up to the elections, hope continues to drive many here who fully intend to vote in spite of the daily car bombs and fierce street fighting in several cities.
For many Iraqis, the chance to cast their vote, no matter how flawed the election process may be , is worth risking their lives for. “I will vote no matter how many car bombs are used,” says Alia Halaf, a proud 24-year-old. While he adds that he is following revered cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s call to vote, he says he would vote anyway because he believes the elections will help his country.
“My 17-year-old neighbour was kidnapped, so I hope the elections will bring us more security,” he says.
Iraqis who intend to vote in Baghdad know all too well that they will be taking their lives in their own hands by doing so. The very process of reaching a polling station will require them to pass through up to three security rings, each demanding identification checks and full body searches.
After suffering under a brutal dictatorship for decades, many Iraqis look to the election more for what it could bring them, rather than voting along political or sectarian lines. Most of the coalitions standing for election do not mention the occupation.
Interim prime minister Iyad Allawi is running under the slogan: “For a strong, secure, prosperous, democratic and unified Iraq.”
“I will be voting for Allawi because I think he can help Iraq,” says Suthir Hamiz, whose husband works at one of the US military camps in a supply department. “I think he can bring security.”
“I will vote because Sistani has told us this will help the country,” says Abdel Hassan, a cobbler in the predominantly Shia district of Karrada in Baghdad. “And I am ready to do anything to help my country.”
Nationalism continues to run strong, so many Iraqis who intend to vote want to maintain a united Iraq in addition to holding on to the hope that they will eventually enjoy true freedom.
“We hope these elections will bring unity between the Shia, Sunni and the Kurds,” says Abdel Aziz, who works at a money exchange in Baghdad. “We hope this is the first step towards us really controlling our country.”
While he says he hasn’t decided how he will cast his vote – he admits to being confused by the options – he feels that the talk of division among Iraqis is coming from a minority. “Only the radicals have brought this divisive thinking,” he says.
“I pray the elections will bring us unity,” says Ahmed Aziz, a 25-year-old owner of a grocery stall in central Baghdad. “If it is a legitimate election we hope it will bring peace to our country that has been suffering for so long.”
Busy shoppers fill his small store stocking up on bread, bottled water and vegetables as concern about violence escalating around the elections mounts. Aziz pauses to give another customer change, before adding: ‘‘I hope the elections will be legitimate, but I don’t know how we will be able to tell for sure.”
While Baghdad’s infrastructure is shambolic and fighting continues to spread across the country , some Iraqis feel that these are the very reasons to take this step towards a possible democracy.
Simply having the ability to vote, to choose from a list of candidates – confusing as the process has been – and the possibility of having a voice is reason enough for many to risk their lives on Sunday.
“The elections will unite us,” says Hamoudi Abdulla, the 35-year-old owner of a clothing shop. When asked if he is Shia or Sunni he promptly replies: “I am Iraqi.”
His friend Hussam Hammad says he feels the same way. “There is no difference between us,” he says. “We are all Iraqi and we are all Muslims. An election cannot change this fact.”
Sayak Kumait al-Asadi is a spokesperson for Grand Ayatollah Sistani. His office sits above a courtyard surrounded by date palms, echoing to the call to prayer which begins to sound from the minaret above the Boratha mosque. His hopes of unity and progress in his country seem pinned to simply having the elections.
“We accept these elections because they are the only thing standing in the way of a divided Iraq,” he says.
“If the elections fail, Iraq will be divided into three parts, so the elections are the true hope for Iraqi unity.”
Regardless of the overt pandering to candidates, such as the interim prime minister, Iraqis like Alia Khalaf continue to believe the elections will be fair.
“I support the elections because they will bring us security,” says the 24 year-old biology student at Baghdad University.
She feels – despite the confusion caused by having anonymous candidates on the ballot, the locations of polling stations being announced just prior to voting day and what is expected to be a lower than anticipated voter turnout – the elections will be legitimate and will move her country closer to prosperity.
“Ours is the richest country,” she says in a busy internet cafe.
“Iraqis only need the opportunity to show what we are truly capable of. And these elections are the first step towards allowing us to do this.”