Fear & voting in Baghdad

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 elections.”

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 a day 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 voted to insurgents? 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 survey results:

* 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 for you.”

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 country.”

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 they've detained.

“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 blocks?”

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 letters like this one to friends and family. You can subscribe by sending a blank email to borzou-subscribe@topica.com.

 ……………….. Spam?! Khalaas!

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