Tue, Nov 23, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Bemused Iraqis mull elections

DEMOCRACY?While being urged to vote in the January poll, Iraqis are wondering who will be on the ballot, and violence is likely to keep others home

THE GUARDIAN , Baghdad

Along Damascus Street, brightly colored posters stuck on the wall that borders the green lawns of Zawra Park implore Iraqis to vote in January's election.

The posters carry a picture of the nation's most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Above his official stamp are his instructions to the faithful: "There are going to be elections and I want you to go to put your votes in the ballot box."

"It is going to be free and we are asking that people vote for those who will be good for our country," he said.

But in recent days most of the posters have been scratched off the wall, a reminder of the tensions that divide the Iraqi population ahead of the first general elections since the US and Britain invaded last year.

Some are enthusiastic to vote, others are concerned for their safety in the face of unrelenting violence and some simply view the coming ballot with unbridled hostility.

This month some 14 million voters ought to be collecting their registration cards from the thousands of small grocery shops that hand out the monthly government rations on which most families still rely.

Ala'a Jabbar, 30, a Shiite Muslim and a science teacher, runs one such store in Doura, a district in southern Baghdad. Like most in the Shiite community, he fervently believes in the vote.

"If the people love Iraq they should go and elect their leader," he said.

After decades of rule by a Sunni minority, the Shiite community, who make up the majority, are about to dominate their country's government, hence Ayatollah Sistani's endorsement of the vote.

But already Jabbar has been threatened and warned that he should not even distribute the voter registration cards.

"We have been under a lot of threats. People are coming from outside this neighborhood telling us not to hand out the cards," he said.

"We've been told we could be killed. It is a big risk but we have to take this risk because it is our country and whoever wins is going to be our leader and we have to choose him," he said.

Jabbar believes the election will simply decide Iraq's new prime minister. In fact, voters will choose candidates for the 275-seat parliament, which in turn will select the prime minister and later draw up a national constitution.

Others say security is so bad that they fear even appearing at the poll booth. "The security situation is poor and I don't think anyone can go to the elections this year," said Muqdad Fadhil, 26, a security guard at the Doura oil refinery.

Like many he is confused by the complex voting process in which the country will be treated as one single constituency with each voter confronted by a potentially vast list of parties and candidates.

"We don't yet know where to vote, or how it is going to be done. Are we going to vote for a leader or for a larger group? What are their names? I don't know," he said.

His preferred candidate would be Ayad Allawi, the current prime minister, a secular Shiite moderate who was appointed by the US in June to run the interim government.

Most seem likely to vote along sectarian or ethnic lines: Shiite voting for Shiite, Kurd for Kurd and Sunni for Sunni.

The greatest concern is with the Sunni community, from which the violent insurgency has developed. Several Sunni clerics and political leaders have warned they will boycott the vote.

"These elections are a joke," said Omar Ali al-Duleimi, a driver originally from Fallujah who now works for a US firm in Baghdad.

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