BAGHDAD — Obama administration officials breathed a collective sigh of relief Sunday when Iraq's parliament, after weeks of delays, approved a law to hold national elections in January, very likely permitting a major post-election withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq.
Bayda Hussein, a 24-year-old schoolteacher, plans to vote for only one reason, however. "My uncle is a candidate in one of the lists, and I don't want him to feel angry," she told McClatchy.
While U.S. officials hail the coming elections as a sign that Iraq is becoming a stable democracy, many Iraqis like Hussein are ambivalent at best about their country's second national election. Security is elusive, electricity still winks out frequently and politicians are held in the lowest repute, seen as obsessed with perks while ignoring people's needs.
"We still have a bad security situation and bad services. I am afraid that the situation would be even worse after the coming election," Hussein said. "Those who come to power care only about filling their pockets with money and (then) leave the country."
Although they agreed on holding the elections, the politicians left a demographic dispute over the tense Kirkuk region unresolved, a source of unease in the months ahead.
Iraq's independent electoral commission has less than 90 days to organize the country's first national polls since U.S. troops withdrew from the streets of Iraqi cities last June.
The head of the commission, Faraj al Haidari, told McClatchy that he has to hire most of the necessary 300,000 poll workers and train, try to do background checks on candidates for parliament and make sure that Iraq's estimated 2.8 million internally displaced citizens know where they can vote Jan. 21.
"It's a lot of work," Haidari said. "The time that we have, frankly, it's little time."
Haidari said he'd just come from a meeting with senior Iraqi and U.S. military commanders to prepare for election security in each of the country's 18 provinces. Assassination attempts against candidates and other attempts by militants to disrupt the election are almost a foregone conclusion.
Time is so short, Haidari said, that candidates for the 275 seats in parliament will get only cursory background checks. Closer inspections will be saved for the winners after election day.
Haidari recalled with a chuckle how he deliberately provoked Iraq's Council of Representatives into action last week, warning lawmakers that the election couldn't be held if the law setting out the rules wasn't in place by last Thursday. Parliament acted — three days after his deadline.
He also credited U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and European diplomats here for prodding the feuding ethnic and religious blocs in parliament toward compromise.
Kirkuk is rich in oil and emotionally symbolic to Arabs and Kurds alike. Kurds wanted to use 2009 voter registration lists for the province. Those lists reflect an influx of Kurdish residents, who their leaders say restore the region's ethnic balance after decades of attempts by the late dictator Saddam Hussein to "Arabize" it.
The Kurds won the political battle over the lists, but a fact-finding committee will audit the voter rolls for problems after the election and issue a report in a year's time, setting up another potential confrontation.
The outcome satisfied few.
"The law was a compromise to keep the political process moving. It was passed according to the desire of the political blocs, whether we are satisfied or not," said
Mohammed Khalil al Juburi, an Arab member of Kirkuk's provincial council.
In the northern city of Mosul, which is among Iraq's most violent places, Sagfan Mohammed, 40, a Kurd, blamed his leaders for what he saw as a sellout.
"The blame is squarely on the shoulders of the Kurd leaders who surrendered in the face of the pressures put on them," said Mohammed, who owns a book and stationery shop. "The armed violence will not recede, it will increase, because of the political fallacy that is practiced under the dome of the parliament."
In the southern port city of Basra, which until this past spring was under the control of Shiite Muslim militias, Ali Abdul Hussein, 41, a lawyer, predicted no letup in violence "because these insurgencies take place between those who participate in the political process."
Still, some Iraqis expressed hope that this election will be different from the last one in 2005, which hardened sectarian divisions and was conducted using "closed lists," under which voters chose coalitions, not candidates. The January elections will use "open lists" that name individual candidates.
Haidari, the elections commission head, dismissed voter apathy.
"Iraqis, they are moody," he said. "From now to the 21st (of January), they change their minds a hundred times."
(Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondents Ali al Basri in Basra and Yaseen Taha in Sulaimaniyah contributed to this article. A special correspondent in Mosul who can't be named for security reasons also contributed.)
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Read what Iraqis think at McClatchy's Inside Iraq.