Fear & voting in Baghdad
Substantive election issues have become subsumed in the
chaos. Voters top concerns are security, security and security
January 29, 2005
The guy finally man agrees to meet me, but only during
daylight hours in a parking lot out in the open. He eyes the surroundings
suspiciously as he
jumps into our car. "Let's go," I say to my driver. The walkie-talkies
crackle, and we race out into late-morning traffic.
He's nervous and jittery. He quickly spells out ground rules:
no name, no pictures and no address. These are understandable conditions
for anyone being hunted.
But this man is no criminal. He's an organizer of Iraq's elections.
"It's as if I'm not working in a legitimate Iraqi operation," he
says in exasperation. "It's as if I'm doing something illegal,
as if I'm in a party and I want to overthrow the government, as
if I'm part of an underground organization."
Indeed it seems everything in Iraq is upside down. It's a country
where the "good guys" wear ski masks as they patrol
the streets in police cars while the insurgents brazenly execute
victims in broad daylight.
It's become a land where most of the 7,785 candidates running
for national office fear putting their names in the newspaper or
pictures on posters while those running amok scrawl graffiti on
the walls warning of death to anyone who takes part in the "infidel
President George W. Bush in an address on Arab television this
week urged Iraqis to go to the polls this weekend. I think that's
an easy proposition from behind the safety of phalanxes of Secret
Service or from the Green Zone, where most of the American and
Iraqi authorities work and live.
But on the ground in Iraq, getting ready for Sunday's election
has been a nightmarish logistical operation. There's still the
danger the vote might be derailed at the last minute, says Carlos
Valenzuela, the chief United Nations official in Iraq.
"The level of intimidation and threats is quite high," he
told me and a few other reporters at a little press briefing a
couple weeks back. "If the threats do translate into attacks
you might actually have people not showing up to work. If something
terribly bad happened, and electoral preparations could not be
completed, that would, of course, jeopardize the election."
Every aspect of this election has been a challenge. Candidates
have been unable to campaign openly for fear of assassination.
Voters have shied away from requesting election information like
the location of polling stations, fearing insurgents will get wind
of their intention to vote and target them.
My translator, all
set to vote, began having second thoughts about what would happen
to him the day after the election, when he'd been spotted by
his neighbors heading to the polls.
Maybe, just maybe, the 300,000
American and Iraqi security forces on hand will be able to
contain the violence for the one day of elections. But what happens
or week later after a poll worker - many of them hired in a
hurry over the past few days - hands the names of all those who
Who will protect him then, when no one is watching?
Even on election day, there will be few watching. The Independent
Electoral Commission of Iraq created badges for up 200,000 election
monitors. At last count, it could only find about 10,000 takers,
less than two for each polling center in the country.
Indeed, no international body will have election monitors in
Iraq on Sunday.
The International Mission for Iraqi Elections, led by Canada's
chief electoral officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, and comprised of
less than two dozen election experts, will monitor the elections
from Amman, Jordan.
Even the mainstay of other election campaigns -- polling -- has
been close to impossible in the run-up to the election. One former
Iraqi scholar, who runs a polling firm in Baghdad, said that many
of his employees have been beaten and jailed while in the field "
In Iraqi society they're not used to seeing people knocking on
doors asking people what they think about politics and the government," said
a pollster, who spoke to me on condition that his name and the
name of his firm not be identified.
Despite the dangers, the pollster says he's managed to compile
* The Shia-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, which has the apparent
blessing of Iraq's highest religious authority, will garner the
most votes, though not a majority
* Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's ticket will come in second, though
he said it had been picking up steam in recent weeks.
* The Kurdish ticket - made up of the two main Kurdish parties
as well as other groups from northern Iraq - will also score solidly,
with heavy turnout expected in the safe autonomous Kurdish zone.
* All other parties would fare poorly, with no small ticket getting
more than 3 percent of the vote.
In other words, all the people who are in power now - the Kurds
and the exile parties from Iran and the West - will be in power
after the election.
A recent poll he conducted predicted 66 percent of Iraqis were
likely to vote, but he said the number was deceptive, and that
turnout would most certaintly be lower. He compared the likelihood
of Iraqis turning up to the polls to the chance that a man might
help out a weakling being beaten up by a bully on the street.
"In your heart and in your mind you might tell yourself
you will help the weak man," he says. "But when it comes
down to it, you probably won't because it will create problems
Substantive election issues have become subsumed in the chaos.
Voters top concerns are security, security and security.
Still, some Iraqi politicians have bandied about bread-and-butter
proposals to improve the lives of ordinary Iraqis. Ahmad Barrak,
a candidate on the the Iraqi Society Movement ticket, has pitched
a scheme to privatize the state-owned oil company and give half
the shares to Iraqi families.
"Our challenge is to convince Iraqis that they're going
to be rich," he said, during an upscale soiree for his party
at Baghdad University. "This will give all Iraqis shares in
the country. We can convince Iraqis that they're a part of this
The bulk of those Iraqis participating in the insurgency - Iraq's
Sunni Arab majority, former members of Saddam Hussein's security
apparatus and Islamic extremists -- will not participate in the
elections so there is little reason to believe the vote will settle
the country's violence.
Adding to a sense of doom is the daunting realization that Sunday's
elections amount to a beginning of the ardous task of naming a
new government, writing and ratifying a constitution and preparing
for new elections by year's end.
"This is going to be an incredibly charged political year
here," said one U.S. embassy official, on condition of anonymity.
Some analysts worry that Iraq's ascendant Shia and Kurds could
a launch a massive crackdown on Sunni Arab parts of the country
where the insurgency is centered, thereby heightening tensions
in the country and increasing the violence.
A report this month by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based watchdog,
the interim government has been torturing suspected insurgents
"I was beaten with cables," a suspected insurgent
named Murtadha Mahdi, 24, told human rights investigators. "They
threw water over my face and attached electrical wires to my ears."
Back on the streets of Baghdad, the election worker vents his
anger at lack of preparations and resources available to him. He's
in charge of 11 full-time employees and 270 temporary workers to
staff seven polling centers for 35,000 potential voters in a section
of Baghdad near Palestine Street.
He is a slight, well-groomed man, with salt-and pepper hair and
a red tie beneath his brown sweater. He is angry and scared. His
job, he says, often seems impossible.
"I'm supposed to meet my staff and talk to them about security,
talk to them about the election process, talk to them about what
they should do," he says. "But unfortunately I don't
have a chance to meet them because of the security conditions."
In most countries, working the polls is a dull job usually taken
up by senior citizens or volunteers. In Iraq, he says, it's like
being involved in clandestine operations. Already at least a dozen
election workers have been murdered throughou the country. Countless
numbers have been threatened with death. Hundreds have resigned
in fear. Those who remain are frustrated by the enormity of organizing
elections in the middle of a brutal guerrilla war.
During a tour of his polling centers, he bemoans the lack of
security at one high school. "The concrete blocks and the
barbed wire should be there by now," he says to a guard posted
at the school. "I want to see something on the street. But
where is the security that you talked about? Where are the concrete
His most important duties are to make sure all the roads leading
to each building are bocked off by concrete to prevent car bombs
and that each building has plenty of exits and entrances so voters
can maneuver in and out in case of attack.
For his efforts and risks, the election worker -- otherwise unemployed
despite his masters' degree in accounting -- earns $200 a month
He launches into a tirade against corruption and incompetence in
the electoral commission which employs him. They wouldn't even
give him a pen, he says, much less an office or a laptop. But he
still believes in the elections, if only to get the current clique
in power out of office.
"I'm not working for them," he says. "I'm working
for my country" He adds, "Besides, I need the money."
Borzou Daragahi is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in major
newspapers, including The New York Times. He sends out occasional
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