Iraqi elections have high stakes, but low bar

Ahmad Chalabi, the onetime U.S. ally and perennially controversial Iraqi politician, appears in a campaign poster in a public square in Baghdad. A spoof campaign poster being circulated by email depicts him as "The Thief of Baghdad." Iraqis enjoy poking fun at candidates ahead of the March 7 parliamentary elections. (Hannah Allam/MCT)
Ahmad Chalabi, the onetime U.S. ally and perennially controversial Iraqi politician, appears in a campaign poster in a public square in Baghdad. A spoof campaign poster being circulated by email depicts him as "The Thief of Baghdad." Iraqis enjoy poking fun at candidates ahead of the March 7 parliamentary elections. (Hannah Allam/MCT)

BAGHDAD — The candidates include sitting judges and journalists who are covering the elections, but in Iraq, no one's complaining about conflicts of interest. Handing out guns, cash and appliances to woo voters? No big deal. The names on the ballot include officials accused of large-scale corruption, fielding death squads and spying for Iran.

Iraq's chances to become a beacon of democracy for the Middle East are uncertain at best, but the outcome of Sunday's vote is sure to send ripples throughout the region, whether Iraqis stack their next government with Western-backed, self-proclaimed nationalists or pick Iran-allied religious conservatives.

The parliamentary polls may be messy and disputed, but — in stark contrast to the election of 2005 — they'll be shaped mostly by Iraqis themselves.

"In the beginning, we were very happy with the role the Americans played regarding elections and creating a culture of democracy, despite the fact they divided Iraqi society into three parts: Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurd," said Mohannad al Kinani, the head of Ayn al Iraq, an Iraqi group that's monitoring the elections. "They imagined at the time that accords between these groups would be enough to establish a democracy," he said. What was missing was a "culture of democracy," including free and fair voting, transparency, accountability and the news media as a watchdog.

Security has improved considerably since 2005, and U.S. officials hope that Sunday's elections will be "good enough": not too bloody, not too fraudulent, not too influenced by "neighboring countries," which is code for Iran. As one Western diplomat described it, on condition of anonymity because of the situation's sensitivity: "As long as they're better than Iran or Afghanistan." Recent elections in those countries led to violent, protracted battles that have yet to be resolved.

In other words, just make the vote smooth enough to send home foreign troops and let Washington focus on a similar exit strategy for Afghanistan. Saying that aloud is taboo, however, and U.S. military commanders and embassy personnel have been instructed to talk only generally about election security and to stay tight-lipped on politics as the vote approaches, several Americans said privately.

Many Iraqis think that's fine.

"If Iraq were a patient in the intensive care unit, the doctor would be supervising and attending him for long hours every day. But if he were to get out of the danger zone and become better, the time and attention given to him would be reduced as a result," said Sadiq al Rikabi, a close adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.

The Bush White House had high hopes for the elections of 2005, the first since the ouster of the late dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. Americans played a major role in that vote — from securing polling places to training candidates to forcing compromises that eventually led to the current Shiite Muslim- and Kurdish-led government headed by Maliki. When election day passed smoothly — despite the boycott by Sunni Muslim parties — U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington made broad proclamations about democracy, transparency and freedom.

That talk quickly evaporated when the fledgling government, protected within the Green Zone from the violence outside, showed itself powerless to stop a sectarian war that raged for the next two years and left thousands of Iraqis dead.

Iraqi forces will be securing the country Sunday, mostly Iraqi monitors will be on the lookout for electoral fraud and Iraqi lawyers will handle any disputes.

U.S. officials all the way up to Vice President Joe Biden complained about the last-minute disqualifications of hundreds of candidates without due process under the guise of rooting out former members of Saddam's Baath Party. Iraqis swatted down the critics with accusations of American interference with their country's sovereignty.

"We hope that the United States will respect the results of the election and will allow the political entities that win the election to lead Iraq," said Abbas al Bayati, a Turkomen legislator who's running on a slate with large Shiite factions.

High-profile candidates have checkered pasts. Maliki, a onetime Shiite Islamist guerrilla, has rebranded himself a nationalist and is reverting to sectarian rhetoric to win votes. There's Ahmad Chalabi, the former U.S. favorite who's now allied with militant, Iranian-backed Shiite groups. Yet another is Finance Minister Baqir Jabr al Zubeidi, more widely known as Bayan Jabr, the man whom Harper's Magazine dubbed "the minister of civil war" because of the uniformed death squads that killed untold scores of Iraqis under his watch as interior minister.

"Some political parties took the sectarian and ethnic direction in the belief that such pushes might cover the failure to provide basic services," said Sheikh Sabah al Saadi, a Shiite cleric and legislator whose pointed grilling of officials suspected of mishandling funds earned him a street reputation as an anti-corruption crusader.

"Today, people want to feel the real change that happened after 2003, and real change doesn't happen by switching out political parties or figures," Saadi said. "Real change happens according to principles of service based on the needs of the people."

Rumors abound of ballot-tampering, vote-buying and other alleged fraud, accusations that are likely only to increase after polls close Sunday.

Qassem Mohammed Abed, the Sunni governor of the western Anbar province, which was once the heart of the insurgency, has just returned to Iraq from the United States, where he received medical treatment after losing an arm and severely injuring a leg in the bombing of his headquarters in December. On Tuesday, he encouraged his constituents to head to polling places Sunday even if they didn't plan to vote.

"I urge those who do not wish to vote to go to the polling stations and void their ballots so there will be no opportunity for election fraud," Abed told a news conference in Anbar.

(McClatchy special correspondent Jamal Naji contributed to this article from Fallujah, Iraq.)


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