'Not our concern'
Election euphoria hits Iraq on the eve of the much-hyped polls, reports Nermeen Al-Mufti from Baghdad
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US occupation forces guard Iraqi prisoners captured during a raid in Jabella. The raid is part of Operation Checkmate aimed to disrupt attacks of Iraqi resistance before elections; Al-Yawar, Barazani, Talabani
Iraqis will go to the polls on Sunday to elect candidates with whom they are barely familiar. Because of the worsening security situation in the country, few candidates have been able to campaign properly. But at least one managed to stay ahead of the game. Iyad Allawi, the current prime minister, appeared in a school in Tikrit as well as in Baghdad University, breaking a government ban on campaigning in schools and universities.
Also, "Iyad Allawi, the Man and the Homeland", a series of programmes on the prime minister, ran twice recently on an Arab satellite station. Not everyone is happy about that. Abdul- Aziz Al-Hakim, once a close ally of Allawi's, criticised Allawi's campaigning ploys. In a press conference, Al-Hakim noted that state services are taking part in the campaign. Even police vehicles are distributing Allawi's electoral programme, he said. "I didn't campaign," said one candidate who asked to stay anonymous citing fear for his life. "Candidates on my list campaigned without even mentioning the names of others on the list. You cannot be too careful," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Safety is a major concern for all those contesting the elections. Many still believe the elections should have been postponed. Among them is Defence Minister Hazim Al-Shaalan, who is running on the Iraqiyoun (Iraqis) list of President Ghazi Al-Yawar. The National Front for the Unity of Iraq (NFUI) pulled out of the elections because the US forces arrested its leader, Sheikh Hassan Zeidan Al-Loheibi. The NFUI is a group comprising mostly-Sunni clans.
"Iraq is wounded and those trying to bandage its wounds are only increasing the pain." This is what Wisal Al-Azzawi, dean of the Political Science College in Al-Nahrayn University said when asked about the elections. Posters and placards, the paraphernalia of elections, are all over Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, but they vie for space with the black-rimmed notices that mourn victims of "unfortunate incidents" in the country.
Anti-election groups are attacking polling centres and candidates without mercy. Two candidates on the list of Prime Minister Allawi were the latest victims of attacks. Al-Zarqawi, the man believed to mastermind the attacks, has renewed his threat to candidates and voters in yet another recorded statement. Not even the Higher Elections Committee (HEC) has been spared the turmoil. HEC chief Abdul-Hussein Al-Hindawi has just dismissed one of his aides, HEC spokesman Farid Ayar, after an acrimonious debate.
The government, which is telling the Iraqis to go to the polls, has failed to stop the attacks. Opinion polls conducted by local papers show that most Iraqis want the elections held. But of one million expatriate voters, only 35,000 have registered. Not only is the public concerned over safety. Many resent the presence of the occupation forces, or simply don't know who to vote for.
In Kirkuk, the Turkomans say they are concerned over the cohesion of their city and need to vote so that the country may have a constitution that guarantees their rights. The "Al-Qaeda Organisation in the Land of the Two Rivers -- Kirkuk" begs to differ. It distributed leaflets calling on the population to boycott the elections "because the winner has been already named and will endorse the presence of occupation forces". The Turkoman community is divided over who to vote for. The Turkoman Front (TF), which claims to be the "sole legitimate representative" of the Turkoman community, controls the only Turkoman satellite station and refuses to give airtime to its rivals.
The Turkomans suspect the HEC is bias to the Kurds. The HEC has approved 90,000 Kurdish voters in Kirkuk. The Kurds claim that the voters are people who have been exiled from Kirkuk in the past, whereas the Turkoman and Arabs say these are people the Kurds brought from other areas to boost their vote.
"The HEC has lost its credibility and neutrality," Hossameddin Ali Turkoman, founder and leader of the Turkoman National Movement (TNM), told the Weekly. He added that HEC has virtually given the Kurds 10 additional seats in the local council elections even before the elections are held. This would give the Kurds a definite majority which they are likely to use to turn Kirkuk into a Kurdish city, something which Turkoman believes conflicts with the history and traditions of the town. Turkoman's TNM is contesting the elections with a list rivalling that of the TF.
The TF, which had threatened to boycott the elections, is holding daily rallies in Kirkuk and other parts of northern Iraq. In these rallies, speakers often assail the HEC and denounce Kurdish attempts to control Kirkuk. But the Turkomans, who are relatively new to the political scene, are unlikely to outmanoeuvre the Kurds, who had years of experience in advancing their cause.
In Al-Anbar, a governorate which has been frequently in the news due to the turmoil in Falluja, another police station has been blown up. The voters are not registered yet. As is the case in many Sunni areas, the government intends to register the voters on the same day elections are held. Security is still shaky. In Hadithah, 280km west of Baghdad, the inhabitants live under siege and say they expect a US attack at any moment. In Heet, 210km west of Baghdad, similar fears have been voiced. Ahmed, a journalist-turned-farmer, said, "we are not against the elections, but against its timing and manner. Who shall we vote for? I want more time given to those who want to help Iraq and the Iraqis, but where are they? Had the Americans announced a timetable for the withdrawal, the elections would have been a time for festivity. The Sunni boycott will affect the writing of the future constitution and upset the equilibrium of this country."
In Mosul, there is no sign of elections. The few posters appear and are removed within hours. Speaking to the Weekly on a condition of anonymity, a one-time candidate for the National Front for the Unity of Iraq, which has just pulled out of the race, said, "although I am not in the race, I do not want my name published. The trouble in Iraq, particularly in the Sunni areas, cannot be resolved through elections. Iraqi expatriates are not taking part in the elections because of the ill-timing. It is hard to see how elections can be held in Mosul under these circumstances. For instance, a garments shop has been bombed because the display dummy was not wearing the hijab. Threats are still being made against [those taking part in] the elections. Who would want to risk his life for something that is doomed to fail?"
In Diyali, which has equal numbers of Sunnis and Shias, the Iraqi Islamic Party has withdrawn from the parliamentary elections but stayed in the race for the local councils. Analyst Ayman Zeidan says the Sunnis do not wish to see the local councils come under Shia control. "This was a smart move, but it came rather late. I was hoping for the Islamic party to take part in the parliamentary elections. We need anything that would restore to the Iraqis their unity and sovereignty. What would boycott and rejection lead to? Those who boycott [the elections] lack a political agenda. They haven't planned for the post-occupation era."
Al-Zarqawi's group, the Al-Qaeda Organisation in the Land of the Two Rivers, is still adamant. The safety of "anyone who chooses to vote is not our concern", the group warned.
Iraqi elections 2005
Iraqis are due to go to the polls on 30 January to elect a 275-member National Assembly. The assembly will then select a new prime minister, a president and will draw up the new Iraqi constitution. According to figures available from the Independent Elections Commission up to 111 electoral lists have been fielded by political groups and independent figures. Al-Ahram Weekly publishes the second group of Iraq's most prominent electoral lists.
The list of interim President Ghazi Al-Yawar, is running under the slogan "Dignity, Security, Justice". Al- Yawar admitted that he understands the argument for postponing the elections, but said that the government does not wish to give "those who carry arms" the satisfaction of having their way. Al-Yawar, whose campaign style is rather subdued, calls for permanent constitution, non-sectarianism, and justice for all Iraqis.
The Kurdish list
While Shia Kurds are running on a separate list, most Kurds have agreed on a unified list backed by the two major Kurdish parties (Talibani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Barzani's Democratic Party of Kurdistan), as well as other Kurdish, Assyrian, and Turkoman ethnic and religious groups. The Kurds want a unified administration of the Kurdish north (currently run by two local governments based in Irbil and Al-Sulaymania), a federal formula on the national level, and the return of several areas "arabised" under Saddam Hussein to Kurdish control.
The right for self-determination continues to be a thorny issue in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Talibani and Barzani want the Kurdish north to stay united with the rest of the country, while governed by an independent Kurdish administration. Some Kurds disagree. Since May 2003, the Referendum Movement has been organising poetry readings and marches and collecting signatures in a bid to create an independent Kurdish state. Non- Kurds are concerned, noting that the Kurds want to extend their control to oil-rich areas, such as Kirkuk, Zamar, and Khaniqin.
The Kurdish unified list calls for a free Iraq with a permanent constitution, a federal and democratic system, and freedom of opinion and creed. Both the Kurds and the Turkomans want all signs of discrimination adopted by the old regime abandoned, particularly the attempts at "arabisation", relocation, detention, and exile of ethnic minorities. The Turkomans, who seek recognition as the third ethnic group in Iraq, want Kirkuk to be city for brotherhood, a place for Kurds and Turkomans, Muslims and Christians. Turkoman officials have voiced concern that the continued clashes in Mosul may impede the ability of voters to go to the poll.