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Electricity was top concern for Iraqi voters

NAJAF, Iraq—When millions of Iraqis braved violence Sunday to elect a National Assembly charged with crafting a new constitution, they also elected local assemblies in hopes of getting something far simpler: electricity.

Residents in Najaf and elsewhere said the election finally gives them an elected local government they can hold accountable for turning on the power. And they're threatening to flex their newly acquired voting muscle, saying if the government doesn't fix the electricity by the end of the year—when the next election will be held—they'll be ready to vote out the scoundrels.

"We gave them (the interim government) an excuse because they didn't have the authority. But if the people vote for them, that means they are legitimate," said Adnan Mehdi Shaed, 36, who exchanges currency in Najaf. "I want them to fix the electricity."

Besides selecting the 275 members of the National Assembly, voters on Sunday also cast ballots for provincial councils of the nation's 18 provinces. Seventeen of the provinces will have a 41-member council; Baghdad will have 51 members.

Those councils will administer the local governments and budgets and advocate for the provinces' needs to the national government. The governor of each province will be chosen from the council.

Electricity is so sparse in Iraq that some places get it only for an hour a day. Parts of Najaf have no electricity at all. Those who can afford generators, which run on gas, have bought them. But the lines to get gas stretch for miles, and the wait can be so long that some people spend the night in cars.

Even a Najaf generator salesman, Abbas Jabar Hussein, 32—who's making bundles from the electricity shortage—said he hoped the government could fix the electricity. His shop lies off of Medina Street in Najaf, a poor section of town that rarely gets any power.

"I think they should fix it in six months," Hussein said.

Residents also said they want the new local government to clean up the raw sewage lining their streets, provide more water and end the gas shortage.

Some residents, such as Hussein, said they voted to keep the appointed local government, believing that those experienced leaders could best fix the electricity. Others chose candidates precisely because they weren't affiliated with the current government.

The interim government was crafted largely by the United States, which appointed people to serve in the provinces. In Najaf, for example, Adnan al Zurfi first served as a translator for the U.S. Army before becoming governor.

The country is still waiting for results for the National Assembly and the local elections. Members of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq said the results would be released in the next week.

Shaed said he voted for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq slate because he believes the appointed government officials have had enough time to improve electricity. He said he doesn't believe anyone appointed by the Americans can be a legitimate leader of his city. But he said he would be watching the new government closely.

Members of SCIRI "are like us. They are from Najaf," Shaed said, adding: "They will be under a test for one year."

Officials said the country's volatility has made it difficult for workers to go to the power plants. And even if they could go, they often lack the necessary new parts and are forced to recycle worn equipment. That, coupled with a nation that's been increasingly buying new electrical products since Saddam Hussein's regime, is taxing the electric system and making it more difficult to repair the problem.

Regardless, some candidates in Najaf, including al Zurfi, campaigned on a promise that they would fix the electricity.

Asaad al Taee, the leading candidate in Najaf for SCIRI, said that if elected, he would focus on improving basic services—and then address human rights and reconstruction.

"If we do that, they will re-elect us," al Taee said.

But it's not clear that local officials can make the repairs. Officials in Baghdad say fixing the electricity is outside of the provinces' responsibilities. Iraq runs on a national grid made up of 26 power plants, including one in Najaf.

Zuhair Sharbaa, the leading candidate on the Future Iraqi Assembly slate, said he doesn't think the elected local government can fix Najaf's electricity. Sharbaa, who's an engineer, said local officials will have to focus on what they can fix if they want to be re-elected.

"It's going to be rapid operations that citizens can observe," such as minor road repairs, planting gardens and minor construction work, Sharbaa said.

But that's not something voters want to hear.

"Right now, it's no good without the electricity," said Mohammed Adel Zahra, 49, a clerk at Kufa University. "Don't forget, we are in the 21st century."


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-VOTERS


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