BAGHDAD, Iraq — With just days to go before Iraq’s first democratic election, Ayoub, a 52-year-old civil engineer, can’t decide: Should he vote, or barricade himself into his home?
“I’ve wanted to vote right from the start,” says Ayoub, a short, balding man who told his story on the condition that he be identified only by his middle name for fear of retribution by the insurgency. “I want to try to make a difference and this will only happen by voting. But on the other hand, I am very scared. What happens if the insurgents spot me and follow me home? Who will protect my family?”
The coming elections are a significant test of President Bush’s goal of spreading democracy to stabilize the Middle East. It is also the first step toward a sovereign Iraq that can slowly take responsibility for its own security and allow American troops to scale back. Voters will elect a parliament that will appoint an interim government and write a constitution in preparation for a final round of elections in December.
Observers had long hoped that the coming vote would result in an interim government reflecting all sectors of Iraqi society — Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians — and help defuse the insurgency. But with violence gripping Iraq, the outcome will come down to the decisions of millions of Iraqis like Ayoub, who didn’t even tell his family when he went to pick up his voter-registration form and has spent weeks struggling with his fears about whether to go to the polls.
Almost every day, innocent Iraqis are killed by car bombs, explosions and assassinations. They are threatened and kidnapped by insurgents. Some are victims of random violence, but many others are targeted for ransom, for cooperating with Americans or simply for helping shape a new Iraq.
In an audio taped message this week, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist believed to be masterminding the Iraqi insurgency, declared war on democracy itself and said his fighters would stop at nothing to derail the elections. Recently, insurgents have attacked an average of 75 times a day. Mass-casualty bombings average about a dozen a month.
In some neighborhoods in Baghdad, such as the Sunni enclave of Ammariyah where Ayoub and his family live, fliers have been distributed warning residents to stay away from the polls. Graffiti splashed on walls warn, “Fallujah resistance is here,” a reference to the nearby town whose name has become synonymous with the resistance.
The Iraqi government has announced drastic security measures for Election Day, including a three-day ban on vehicle traffic across the country and closing Iraq’s borders and Baghdad International Airport. Martial law has been extended and large numbers of coalition forces as well as Iraqi security forces will be deployed to form a security ring around polling stations across the country. A Marine helicopter transporting troops in support of the election crashed during a sandstorm in Iraq’s western desert yesterday, killing 31. The cause of the accident was under investigation.
A recent poll done by the International Republican Institute, a nonpartisan group funded by the U.S. government, showed that about 80% of Iraqis said they are very likely or somewhat likely to vote on Jan. 30. But by a wide margin fear topped the list of reasons why they may not vote. About 33% said safety concerns might keep them from voting, while only 12% said they wouldn’t vote as a protest against the process. IRI surveyed 1,900 Iraqis in all of the country’s 18 provinces except two that were inaccessible. The margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.
President Bush addressed Iraqis’ fears yesterday in a Washington news conference. “Clearly, there are some who are intimidated,” he said. “I urge people to vote. I urge people to defy these terrorists.”
Extreme emotions swirl around the election. At Friday prayers Shiite clerics, who see the vote as a way for the majority Shiites to grasp power, try to convince worshipers that voting is a religious duty and dying on Election Day would equal martyrdom. Meanwhile, many of their Sunni Muslim counterparts tell their followers that participating in elections is an unforgivable sin.
Between these extremes is a large segment of Iraq’s population that is well-educated, moderate, secular-minded or pro-Western. Given a voice, they might help balance the religious and ethnic currents running through the election. But Ayoub’s struggle shows just how complicated a decision it has become to exercise the seemingly simple civic duty of casting a ballot.
Ayoub, a civil engineer who sometimes supplements his income by selling pharmaceuticals, lives with his wife and their younger daughter, an unemployed college graduate. Their modest home has a front garden full of Iris bulbs Ayoub plants every year. The couple’s older daughter was married recently and moved to Jordan.
Their neighbors are mostly Sunni Muslims who are generally sympathetic to the insurgency and hostile to Americans and the new Iraqi government. Many of the families that fled Fallujah during a recent U.S. siege to root out insurgents took refuge in this neighborhood. Ayoub’s family began feeling uneasy when their neighbor brought home nine young men from Fallujah whom Ayoub calls, “insurgent-looking types with long beards and cold eyes who hang out in the street all day.”
Cold and Distant
Ayoub and his family are among the few Christians living on the block, and he has watched in dismay as the family’s relationship with neighbors has grown cold and distant. None of their neighbors visited this year during Christmas, as they had done in previous years. The customary chit-chat on the sidewalk has turned into cordial nods and greetings. Last summer, the nearby church Ayoub’s family attends was blown up during the wave of attacks against Christians. In the past two weeks, one neighbor who worked as an Iraqi National Guard was killed and another kidnapped for a hefty ransom.
Ayoub gets nervous just thinking about the possibility of one of his neighbors watching him as he walked through the neighborhood to his local polling station and then telling insurgents. “I don’t have to touch fire to know it burns,” he says. “It has happened to so many others, and I can see the damage.”
Ayoub’s journey from committed voter to uncertain one began in December, when he read in the newspapers that Iraqis could pick up voter-registration forms at their local grocery store. He deliberately didn’t mention anything to his wife and daughter when he set out to collect one. Still, he says, “My mind was set to vote then, there was no doubt at all.”
Nonetheless, he wanted as few people as possible to know. At the grocery store, he pretended to be checking rice prices until the other patrons had left. Then he leaned forward and whispered to the clerk, “Do you have our voter-registration forms?”
The grocer shook his head angrily, saying he had received death threats from insurgents over the forms, according to Ayoub. The grocer told him he returned all the forms to the registration center set up by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq at an elementary school nearby.
Ayoub drove to the school, keeping his eyes fixed on the rear-view mirror to make sure he wasn’t being followed. On the way he noticed graffiti on one wall declaring, “Election is for infidels.”
He parked his car several blocks away, walked to the school and received his form. Before leaving, he neatly folded the paper and hid it between several layers of newspaper as he walked back to his car. Just in case he was being followed, he drove around town running errands instead of going straight home. “I was behaving like a criminal on the run,” he says. “And all I wanted to do was pick up my voter-registration form.”
Two days later, Ayoub mustered up the courage to tell his family he was planning to vote and had picked up the registration form. His wife’s initial reaction was disapproval and concern. Ayoub says he tried to convince them of the importance of having a say in their country’s future.
He bought newspapers and searched television channels for news and information about elections, candidates and their various agendas. But he found very little. The names of thousands of candidates running on 111 different party slates had not been publicized yet, out of concerns for their safety. Campaigning has been limited to posters and two-minute television spots urging voters to cast their ballots for a number corresponding to a political party’s slate rather than a candidate.
Even in southern cities like Basra, where the population is heavily Shiite and eager to vote, candidates have paid a price for openly campaigning. Bedour Al-Yasseri, a female candidate from Samawah on the national slate for the Islamic Dawa Party, made a radio appearance on a Basra station a few weeks ago advocating more rights for women in the next constitution. A few days later, gunmen fired into her home and threw grenades over the walls. Though no one was hurt, Ms. Yasseri was forced to go into hiding.
‘Is Voting Worth It?’
Ayoub became increasingly uneasy about the lack of information about the election, compounded by the daily horror stories of violence. Ayoub’s wife was never very interested in politics and grew increasingly concerned about the consequences of starting now. In the past few weeks, she’s begun to cry, pleading with her husband not to leave the house on Election Day. His daughter says she overheard her mother tell him, “What do you want? You want me to be a widow and our daughters to be without a father? Is voting worth it?”
Ayoub’s younger daughter says she would vote under different circumstances. But both her parents have told her not even to think about casting a ballot. “I always dreamed of having democracy and a free society during Saddam’s time. I wish I could go vote, so we don’t end up with an Islamic government. But my mom would collapse if I even mention this,” she says.
One day, discussing his decision with a friend, Ayoub realized that the risk, and fear, wouldn’t disappear after Election Day if he voted. “Are you crazy,” he says his friend told him. “Who will protect you the day after? The next week?”
In recent days, he’s agonized over whether the polling station would be under surveillance by insurgents and whether he would be recognized.
He worries that the insurgents may learn his address and attack his wife or daughter. He wishes the regulations allowed him to vote in another neighborhood. But even if they did, he knows he still would have to walk a long distance to get to another district — attracting attention all the way.
“I’m willing to take the risk of a car bomb that day, but I can’t jeopardize the safety of my family,” he said one recent morning over hot tea in a Baghdad hotel. “If my wife and daughter get killed because I wanted to exercise democracy I could never live with myself.” Then he paused and said, “Inside I really want to vote.”
His daughter glared at him anxiously. “Dad, you’re not going to vote,” she said. “Please. The only solution is not to leave the house.”
“Let’s see what happens that day,” Ayoub told her. “If it’s quiet by noon, maybe I’ll take a walk and check out the polling station. If I see a big crowd then I can blend in and vote. That would be so nice.”
Write to Farnaz Fassihi at firstname.lastname@example.org.