BAGHDAD — Nawar Abbas, an affluent Sunni Arab oil official under Saddam Hussein and again with the new government, says the election this Sunday threatens his world.
In the chandeliered opulence of a members-only club, where he has brought his family for lunch, the Oil Ministry official ticks off his fears: election day violence, voter confusion and, worst of all, rebellion in the weeks that follow. “Once the fire (of civil war) has erupted, it will take a long time to put out,” warns Abbas, 50. “It’s a very difficult thing, really, the election.”
But just steps from the ballroom, in the kitchen of the Iraqi Hunting Club, the election has a different meaning. “We are not afraid,” says Abdul Kareem Naji, a 46-year-old Shiite who is the club’s senior chef, in his white cap and purple jacket. “Even if there will be trouble, I will go. Because this is something of my faith, like a principle.”
Iraq’s first free elections in about half a century are just days away. Large swaths of the country are relatively peaceful, and Iraqis are excited about the chance to cast their first meaningful ballot. A recent survey by the International Republican Institute found that 80% of Iraqis say they will probably vote.
But unrelenting insurgent violence, the specter of post-election sectarian strife and confusion over complex ballots threaten to snuff out democracy before it can take hold. Against this backdrop, Iraqis are talking and thinking about little else. From the mountainous north to the Kuwaiti border in the south, elections dominate conversations: the danger of voting or, by contrast, the sheer pleasure of exercising that right for the first time.
Among some Iraqis, the prospect of democracy triggers an almost religious zeal.
Ziad Al-Dulaimi, 22, an idealistic election worker in Baghdad whose father is Sunni and mother is Shiite, hates his parents’ generation for acquiescing to Saddam’s authoritarian rule. Al-Dulaimi says now is the time for a fresh start.
“You continue to cling to the present,” he says, after dropping off ballot material in the U.S.-protected Green Zone. “I’m clinging to the future. Our fathers made the mistake and made Saddam look great. And we paid for it. We don’t want to repeat the mistake. Let the men and women die (trying to vote) in order to give new life to the kids.”
By contrast, Maysoon Sadeq Mohammed, 45, a Sunni Arab, says the election is not worth her life. “I expect people may come inside the polling stations and explode themselves,” says Mohammed, an administrator with the Iraqi Journalists Union. She will not vote.
Iraqis voted during the Saddam era, but the dictator was the only choice on the ballot. On Sunday, the contrast will be huge: Iraqis must sift through a ballot with 111 choices. Voters will select one slate of candidates from a political party or coalition. The top vote-getters will send their candidates to a 275-person national assembly, which will draft a constitution and appoint a new government.
In many cases, voters don’t know the names of candidates because some lists have been kept secret for security reasons.
Mohsen Mahdey Mohsen, 24, a Shiite student from Karbala, is too befuddled by the ballot and the thousands of candidates to vote.
“I was busy with my exams,” Mohsen says. “The problem is that I am unable to distinguish between the competitors and their personalities and political history.”
The International Republican Institute survey released last week shows that half the respondents wrongly believe they are voting for a new president or don’t know what they are voting for. The survey quizzed 1,903 people in 16 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Two provinces were avoided for security reasons.
“Nobody is talking about the constitution,” says a frustrated Anwar Al-Jebar, radio manager for the Basra-based al-Nahrain talk-radio program. “Many people call the radio, (and) they say, ‘We don’t know anything about the election.’ “
A few hundred yards from a border crossing into Kuwait, Thaer Joma, 22, a Shiite private with the Iraqi Border Guard, pulls to a stop in one of the new Ford Ranger pickups the service has been provided.
Joma is unsure of the constitution or how it relates to Sunday’s election. But he believes this vote is a step closer to creating an Iraq that will make the foreign armed forces, including those from the United States, leave the country.
“We talk about it. Most of my mates will vote for (Interim Prime Minister Ayad) Allawi, because he has been looking after us very well,” Joma says. “He’s very good.” Allawi and other members of the current government lead the Iraqi List, one of the slates on the ballot.
The insurgency is most intense in central Iraq — the Sunni area north and west of Baghdad — and in the northern city of Mosul. There is relative calm in the Kurdish north and the Shiite south, which were brutalized by the Sunni-dominated Saddam regime, and voters there are embracing democracy.
“This is our day,” says Yassen Kamal Dazaee, 28, a Kurd living in the village of Chamchamal in the hills above Kirkuk. “I believe this (vote) will be the best way for the Kurdish people to get back their rights lost during the last 50 years,” he says. He supports the Kurdistan Alliance, a slate of candidates backed by the two major Kurdish parties.
Karaman Fayk Hossean, 33, was one of thousands displaced under Saddam’s “Arabization” program in the 1980s. Kurds were forcibly relocated to make way for incoming Arab families around oil-rich Kirkuk and other parts of northern Iraq. Kurds, who are mostly Sunni, make up about 15% of Iraqis.
Sipping tea in an underground cafe in the far northern city of Erbil, Hossean says he sees democracy as a way to assert Kurdish nationalism. “This time we have the chance to demonstrate the real size and weight of Kurds in the future of Iraq,” he says.
The Shiites also regard the election as a chance to gain political power long denied to them. Saddam’s government, fearful of a Shiite uprising, banned Shiite celebrations and other expressions of their religious identity.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leading Shiite spiritual leader, issued a fatwa, or religious decree, saying it is the duty of all Shiites to vote. Many Shiites say they will oblige. Shiites constitute about 60% of Iraq’s 26 million people.
Sarmad Abdil Rassol, 22, of Babil, a graduate student at the University of Technology in Baghdad, said his vote will be the most important act of his life.
“The people I will vote for will write the constitution, and the constitution will decide the future of the whole country,” he says.
Sunnis see themselves losing
Sunni Arabs fear that no matter how successful polling is in large parts of the country, they will end up losers. Sunni Arabs have dominated Iraq’s government for most of its modern history. About 20% of Iraqis are Sunni Arabs.
Fearful of violence, many Sunni Arabs say they are staying home on election day. Enass Al-Jumaili, 22, is a Sunni college student from Fallujah, where U.S. troops fought insurgents in November, leaving much of the city in ruins. She describes the election as a tool of powers that destroyed her home.
“Do you want me to vote for those who burnt my house in Fallujah? Are you serious?” Al-Jumaili says. “Saddam was a dictator. But at least we were living in safety. I believe the Americans should leave.”
It’s not hard to find resentment among Sunnis.
Ali Mothana, 35, a Sunni father of two and a computer manager at the Education Ministry, sees disaster if victory should come to the Sistani-backed United Iraqi Alliance. The party is often identified by its reference number on the ballot, 169, or simply “Sistani.”
“If 169 wins, there will be civil war,” says Mothana over lunch at the Hunting Club with his family and friends.
The United States will not tolerate this, he says, so it will engineer victory for its favorite, Allawi. Either way, Mothana says, he will boycott the election. “It is not free. It is a fake,” Mothana says. “You told us you would remove Saddam and then leave. … The United States is the biggest liar in the world.”
Abbas, the oil ministry official, says he also fears the election’s aftermath. “What I’m worried about is that you will get a lot of people who are not going to vote. And they will not have the chance to be in the assembly. And they might (then) turn out to be militants against those who are going to win,” Abbas says. “We get people who are fanatics, whether they are Sunni or Shiite.”
Contributing: Cyrille Cartier in Irbil, Iraq; Mohammed Hayder in Baghdad.Top