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Amid ongoing violence, excitement palpable on eve of Iraqi elections

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's first democratic elections in a half-century are a turning point in the nation's history, but which way Iraq will turn may not be clear for some time.

The Bush administration and many Iraqis hope Iraq will turn to democracy, and for some groups, including the country's Shiite Muslim majority and Kurdish minority, women and democrats, Sunday's parliamentary elections are a historic first. There was a tinge of excitement Saturday on the eve of the voting, despite the insurgency's efforts to derail the elections by murdering half a dozen candidates, bombing some of the 5,300 polling places and intimidating many of the 14 million eligible voters.

A rocket fired at the U.S. Embassy compound inside the heavily fortified Green Zone late Saturday killed two Americans and wounded five, an Embassy spokesman said. Earlier in the day, a man wearing an explosives belt under his clothes killed five Iraqi policemen and injured seven by blowing himself up outside a polling station in the northern town of Khanaqin, according to Iraqi authorities.

There also were unconfirmed reports of insurgents wearing stolen police uniforms roaming the capital Saturday in phony security vehicles and ambulances. Arab television channels showed a string of minor clashes near polling sites throughout Iraq.

Interim President Ghazi al-Yawer said Iraqis who opt out of the polls "are not taking part in the election because of security." He said he hoped that voter turnout would be as high as 66 percent, but said he'd settle for 40 percent. Speaking to journalists Saturday at his home in the Green Zone, al-Yawer stressed that even in U.S. presidential elections, the majority of Americans don't always vote.

"Any political process without the participation of Sunni, Shiite and Kurds will not be successful," al-Yawer said.

But some Iraqis, especially the Sunni Muslims who dominate the country's heartland, consider the vote either an illegitimate exercise held at the point of American guns or an effort to rob them of control over the country and its oilfields, which are mostly in Shiite or Kurdish territory.

Perhaps mindful that many Iraqis didn't plan to vote, several political parties continued campaigning past the cut-off date, resulting in small fines levied Saturday by the Iraqi Electoral Commission. Among those fined were U.S.-backed interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, President al-Yawer and the country's two most prominent Kurdish politicians.

Not even the election's staunchest supporters argue that Iraq is prepared: The Iraqi security forces remain small and ill-trained, insurgents still strike at will and basic services are still lacking nearly two years after the American-led invasion. But ready or not, the vote will happen, both despite and because of U.S. efforts.

The result will be a new national assembly dominated by Shiites who don't agree on whether the new Iraq should be guided by Islamic law or by secular democratic principles. The top Shiite contenders, including some Iran-backed clerics, have promised a state that resembles Turkey more than the Islamic Republic to the east.

Such campaign promises, however, ring hollow even in a country where democracy has never taken root and where most candidates have campaigned anonymously in an effort to stay alive.

If the question about the Shiites is whether they want a clerical or a secular Iraq, the question about the Sunnis is whether they will accept a Shiite-dominated government, especially if most of them are either unable or unwilling to vote.

"It seems more like a battlefield than an election field," said Ayad al Samurrai of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni party to withdraw from the elections. "There is a lot of doubt and skepticism regarding the process. ... It won't be a true reflection of the Iraqi will."

The Kurds, most of whom are Sunnis, have set aside their internal quarrels, at least for the moment. It remains to be seen, however, whether they'll be content to keep their semiautonomous northern region and be a formidable minority bloc in the assembly's wrangling over a new constitution, or whether they'll seek even greater autonomy—and the lion's share of the revenue from the oilfield that lies along the line dividing Sunnis and Kurds.

The worst-case scenario is that the elections will divide Iraq more than they unite it, and even lead to civil war. Iraqis who once stressed that "Iraq is one hand: Sunni and Shiite" have retired that line.

Sunni insurgents have struck again and again at their Shiite rivals, but Shiite clerics so far have managed to pacify their fed-up followers. But will Shiite leaders show the same restraint when they're in charge?

"Where there are free regimes, there is no sectarianism," said Sadr el Din al Kubunchi, a Najaf-based Shiite cleric with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The Iran-backed group's leader is the top candidate on the favored ticket.

The deep divisions that will survive Sunday's vote were perhaps best illustrated Saturday in two cities: the southern Shiite holy city of Najaf, where turnout could be the highest in the country, and the battle-scarred Sunni city of Fallujah, where the lowest turnout is expected.

In Najaf on Saturday, Shiites chanted pro-election slogans as they walked to the Imam Ali shrine, the most sacred Islamic site in Iraq. Worshippers such as Zahra Mehdi, 37, touched the shrine and prayed for elections to go smoothly.

"The elections are occupying our minds," she said. "We are ready to vote."

In Fallujah, in the heart of the violent Sunni Triangle, residents hunkered down indoors as fresh fighting broke out in the city, which is controlled by U.S. forces after a battle with insurgents in November. Heavy machine-gun fire came from the east side of town, where bright yellow flashes illuminated the Saturday night sky. A barrage of mortars and rocket-propelled grenades could be heard across the city.

Mohammed Younis, a 37-year-old construction worker, hadn't made up his mind about voting early Saturday. The nighttime clashes, however, made the decision easy.

"It's too dangerous," Younis said in a telephone interview. "I don't want my children to cry because I decided to go to an election that won't change anything on the ground."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Nancy A. Youssef of the Detroit Free Press contributed from Najaf and Ken Dilanian of the Philadelphia Inquirer, embedded with U.S. troops, contributed from Baghdad. Special correspondent Mohammed al Awsy contributed from Baghdad and a special correspondent who isn't named for security reasons contributed from Fallujah.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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