Hearts, minds and low, low gasoline prices

By Jeff Horwitz

Published January 5, 2005 10:51PM (EST)

The Iraqi election is only a little more than three weeks off, but for Iraqi civilians and American soldiers, that's got to seem like an eternity. In the last two days, four suicide bombers and multiple guerilla attacks have killed 33 Iraqi policemen, civilians, and government officials. Six American soldiers died on Tuesday alone. The mounting carnage has led to yet another round of questioning as to whether holding an election on the 30th would be feasible, much less advisable. On Tuesday, Iraq's interim president, Ghazi Yawar, suggested that "it will be a tough call to hold the election," and suggested the U.N. should weigh in on whether Iraq's ready for an election.

But Allawi vehemently insisted today that the election would take place as scheduled, and The Washington Post reports that American commanders are trying to downplay the possibility that insurgent violence on the 30th will disrupt voting.

Middle East expert Juan Cole writes on his blog, however, that focusing solely on whether the interim Iraqi government can pull off the election may miss the point. Looking back to yesterday's assassination of Ali Haidary, Baghdad Province's governor, Cole suggests that the full significance of recent attacks on Iraqi Government officials has been overlooked. "These killings have often not even been well reported in the US press. But imagine if a group was systematically killing the secretaries of state of the 50 US states, and sometimes got a governor to boot." Should insurgents continue to succeed at assassinating such prominent officials so regularly, Cole notes, "the real question won't be whether you could hold elections but rather whether the members of the new government could be kept alive."

As a break from doom-and-gloom coverage, The New York Times goes to Sadr City in Baghdad to cover the campaign events of Fatah al-Sheik, a "natural politician" running in the upcoming national elections. While many of the names of Iraq's candidates haven't been made public for security reasons, al-Sheik is making campaign speeches and glad-handing in the Baghdad slum that only a few months ago was the scene of heavy fighting against American forces. The reason al-Sheik has that luxury, The Times notes, is that he's running with the tacit support of rebel cleric Muktada al Sadr.

"Now, for local residents anyway, Sadr City may be one of the few places where press-the-flesh stumping is thinkable. Its ethnic insularity protects it from troublemaking strangers, and residents have largely heeded Mr. Sadr's call, as fighting ended in the fall, to halt attacks." Besides giving a surreal description of a political campaign in a war zone, The Times piece documents the growing stature of Sadr's part-political, part-religious and part-paramilitary movement. "'Moktada is keeping his options open,' said Ghassan al-Atiyah, a Shiite who returned from exile last year and leads a secular, ethnically mixed election slate. If the elections and resulting institutions take hold, Mr. Sadr will have sway from within; if his followers do poorly or things fall apart, he can say he was not involved."

Though it's an excellent article, the Times misses one of the Sadrists most powerful campaign promises, and one they've already delivered on weeks before the election: ending gasoline shortages. Juan Cole links to a Lebanon Daily Star article noting that, thanks to the very visible efforts of paramilitary units loyal to the cleric, the two million inhabitants of Sadr City now have one of Iraq's most functional fuel distribution systems.

That Sadrists' competency and initiative will likely pay dividends in the election, the article notes, and even employees of the Iraqi government seem grateful. "Civil servant Haider al-Jubori said the Sadrist intervention meant that gasoline distribution was now more orderly and efficient. 'They saved us from a very long wait -- until now, I have been finishing work and then queuing for hours and hours just to get fuel. Now it takes me one hour or less just because we have Sadr's men controlling this gas station.'"

Jeff Horwitz

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