Election Divides a Nation

BAGHDAD — The elections due Jan. 30 appear to have brought more chaos and division amongst Iraqis than unity and hope. And they have brought greater security fears.

U.S.-appointed prime minister Iyad Allawi acknowledged last week that full security will be impossible. This despite the rather draconian measures his interim government will have in place.

The government has announced plans to close borders Jan. 29-31. It will cut mobile and satellite phone services, ban travel between Iraq’s 18 provinces, lengthen curfew hours and restrict use of vehicles.

Security at polling stations will be heavy. The government plans to set up three security rings around each of the 9,000 polling stations.

But the government is preparing for a bloody day despite such measures. The health ministry has announced it will provide more hospital beds, medical supplies and staff for the day. The U.S. military will run extra patrols to respond faster to attacks.

With at least eight candidates killed, and many others receiving daily death threats, campaigning has mostly consisted of parties employing staff to post leaflets and set up posters. Many of the posters are torn down the same day, while others are burned.

The polling process itself is confusing many people. With 7,785 mostly unnamed candidates on the lists of 83 coalitions of political parties, voters have little idea who they will be voting for. Each list contains between 83 and 275 candidates, running on platforms championing all sorts of causes.

The ‘candidates’ lists have names such as ‘The Security and Stability List’, ‘The Security and Justice List’ and the ‘Iraq List’. Many include fancy graphics, but few carry candidate photographs.

Allawi is a member of a list running under the slogan ‘For a strong, secure, prosperous, democratic and unified Iraq’. Most candidate lists do not mention the occupation of Iraq.

One election poster reads, ”Let the polls be our answer to the car bombings and insecurity”. Another has a smiling face of a man with the promise that this list will focus on restoring electricity.

The lists are mostly sectarian. Kurdish lists are focused on winning Kirkuk for Kurds, and obtaining a top government post. Shias have their own lists, some seeking federalism, others an Iranian-style regime.

The Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni group, has called for a boycott in protest against the destruction of Fallujah by the U.S.. military. Local people estimate that 90 percent of Sunnis will not vote. Members representing Sunni Muslims would in that event have to be appointed..

Most voters are expected to be Shia Muslims. Their revered Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has issued a fatwa instructing his followers to vote.

”I will vote because Sistani has told us this will help the country,” said Abdel Hassan, a shoemaker in the predominantly Shia district Karrada in Baghdad. ”And I am ready to do anything to help my country.”

Other Iraqis appear to be firmly against the elections.

”How can we vote when we don’t know any of the candidates,” said a Shia man who gave his name as Ghassan. ”And how can any of them help a country that is occupied by invaders?”

Just the fear of violence is certain to keep many voters at home. ”We don’t know when the next bullet will come so we are staying in our homes most of the time,” said Abdulla Hamid, a 35-year-old father of five who sells vegetables in Baghdad. ”I would vote if there was security, but this election is confusing to me and seems to be causing so many problems already.”

Some believe voting will help security. ”I will be voting for Allawi because I think he can help Iraq,” says Suthir Hamiz, whose husband works in the supply department at a U.S. military camp. ”I think he can bring security.”

Hamoudi Aziz, who drives his car as a taxi while looking for a better job, says the elections themselves have brought a worsening of the security situation. ”I’m not even safe in my own home under this martial law,” he said when asked if he will vote. ”So how am I expected to vote for this crazy parliament?”