Iraqi crisis report: Embattled Iraqis unmoved by election saga

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Breakthrough in prolonged dispute over planned elections means little to Iraqis still facing violence and hardship.

By IWPR-trained reporters and staff (ICR No. 315, 11-Dec-09)

Bombers this week struck central Baghdad hours after leaders reached an agreement over holding elections next year, underscoring what many Iraqis see as a deepening disparity between their daily lives and the political system.

Car bombs outside official buildings killed more than 120 people and injured nearly 500 in the capital on December 8.

The violence on the streets overshadowed news of this week's breakthrough in parliament that paved the way for an election, originally scheduled for January, to be held in early March.

Even before the latest blasts, months of tortuous debate over electoral law and the allocation of seats appeared already to have alienated much of the public.

A straw poll conducted by IWPR found Iraqis to be largely unaware of the issues that had held up agreement on the election, the first nationwide vote in five years.

People interviewed across the country emphasised that they wanted better security and basic services, as well as firm action against corruption and unemployment.

Very few cited sectarian or ethnic disputes as key election issues, although these divisions were central to the protracted political battle over the planned ballot.

"It is not in the people's interests to focus on sectarianism again," Hameed Fadhil, a political science professor at Baghdad University, told IWPR. "Sectarianism hurt ordinary citizens more than anyone else. They were the main victims - not the politicians, security chiefs or officials."

Sectarian sentiments may have lost some popular support but, according to Iraqis interviewed by IWPR, they still guide the parties that were elected at the height of the conflict five years ago.

Yasmin Hasan, who works for a Baghdad radio station, said she expected campaign themes in the coming election to echo those in the 2005 ballot, when the insurgency was in full swing.

"This indicates that we have failed to solve security problems and fix services," she said. Hasan said she did not believe the timing of the election - already postponed because of the political dispute - would make a major difference.

"Whether the current government delays the election or holds it on schedule, we are not holding out high hopes," she said.

"Take what just happened in Baghdad," she went on, referring to the blasts in the capital. "Where is the security? Where were the security forces?"

Anwar Jasim Mohammed, a civil servant, said he planned to go to the polling station in order to mark his name on the electoral roll and "prevent parties from using my vote". However, he said, he would spoil his ballot. "It is sinful to vote. We voted last time and we know what they [the parties] are like."

Faris Hussein Hammodi, a rights activist in Baghdad, said he expected the election to be marred by fraud and low voter participation.

"The Iraqi street does not trust politicians and I think this will keep turnout down," he said. He compared the dispute over the election law to a political match, describing it as "a game of arm-twisting in pursuit of personal gain".

The election law's passage was repeatedly delayed because of objections from Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders, reflecting Iraq's ethnic and sectarian fissures.

Iraqi vice president Tareq al-Hashemi recently vetoed the bill saying it did not provide enough seats for the Sunni Arab minority, including many who live abroad as refugees. Earlier, Kurdish leaders had blocked the bill because of a row over their entitlement to seats, and over the status of the contested city of Kirkuk.

The law was eventually passed this week in a midnight parliamentary session, apparently brokered by the United States and the United Nations.

Most Iraqis interviewed by IWPR were vague about the details of the debate over electoral representation. Many simply attributed the delay in passing the law to individuals or to groups, such as Hashemi, the Sunnis or bickering politicians.

An analyst said this indicated that Iraqis still interpreted politics in ethnic or sectarian terms - even if their demands, such as security and services, had grown more universal.

"The Iraqi citizen is one-dimensional," said Abdullah Jafar, a retired political science professor in Baghad, adding that most people got their news from media outlets affiliated to political or religious groups.

"This is a perfect situation for parties with a sectarian ideology," he said.

Abbas Abed, a policeman in the Shia holy city of Najaf, said the delay in passing the law was caused by those loyal to the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and by "the invisible triangle of conflict between the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds".

Asked what had held up the election law, Hammodi al-Salami, a librarian in the city, said the parties had "been fighting over political interests".

Ali Mahdi, a businessman in the largely Sunni Arab town of Tikrit, north of Baghdad, said the delay was down to "political differences".

Badriya Hasan, a housewife in the town, said cross purposes in the government had had prolonged the electoral dispute. Both Hasan and Mahdi said they would vote for better security and services.

In the Kurdistan region, several voters said they hoped the election would help cure politics of corruption. "It would be best if honest people go to parliament to address the issue," said Fakhir Hamad Khurshid, a lawyer in the regional capital, Erbil.

Similar sentiments were also heard in Basra in the south. Boraq Ali, an electrician, said he would not vote but he hoped the new government would address corruption and reform laws on parliamentarians' salaries.

In ethnically mixed Kirkuk, Saif Naji, an Arab student, said, "All political blocs are responsible for the delay in approving the election law.... They lack respect for the rights of minorities."

All three people interviewed by IWPR in Kirkuk - a Kurd, Arab and Turkoman - said they would vote to help resolve the dispute over their city.

Kirkuk was the only province outside the Kurdish region to be excluded from Iraqi provincial council elections last January, amid fears that a vote there could spark violence.

IWPR-trained journalists in Baghdad, Basra, Najaf, Tikrit and Kirkuk contributed to this report. IWPR editorial staff in Baghdad and Erbil also reported this story.