Vote and/or die

Braving death, a few Shiites hit the streets to turn out the vote -- and inspire one flag-waving Iraqi to welcome an American reporter.

Published January 29, 2005 8:57PM (EST)

There's a "Simpsons" episode where Homer becomes an astronaut and flies on the space shuttle. He accidentally breaks an ant farm with his head, whereupon the ants are unwillingly sucked out of their glass habitat.

"Freedom! Horrible, horrible freedom!" says one ant, as zero gravity sucks him into the unknown.

This long-forgotten scene came to mind while I was flying in a turboprop airplane headed from Beirut, Lebanon, to Baghdad, where I have spent about 13 months since the fall of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime.

In that time, I have learned a lot about Iraq, Iraqis, Islam, war, death and all the other lessons that come from covering a foreign war with massive consequences for key parts of the world. But two critical things I know about Iraq are: one, you can never predict what might happen next in this epic saga that has come to dominate the lives of millions and my own and, two, it can always get worse.

I cannot claim with certainty that the elections will not help stabilize the grave situation here in Iraq, but I can say that every month it deteriorates for Iraqis, journalists, aid workers and U.S. soldiers. Now, having seen almost every facet of their lives worsen under the American-administered occupation, the Iraqi people face an election in which "should I risk voting?" is the biggest question.

For the Iraqi Arabs, the few months since I was last here have seen the insurgency by Sunni groups -- a mix of former Baathists, jihadi religious fighters, and otherwise apolitical nationalists who loathe the American presence in their country -- dramatically improve their organization and operational effectiveness, by everyone's reckoning.

And the security situation has correspondingly deteriorated as the insurgents have upped their war against the American forces, Iraqi security services, election workers and political candidates. It has been an awfully bloody time for the people who are trying to build a new Iraq from the ashes of Saddam's rule, several wars, sanctions and the American occupation.

Despite the severe security measures, which include a 6 p.m. curfew, businesses and schools closed for days, and huge numbers of American and Iraqi troops on the street, Friday saw scores of small clashes around the country and several car bombings. At least four Iraqi police and five American soldiers were killed in Baghdad alone.

Insurgents used a Web site commonly used by anti-coalition leader Abu Musab Zarqawi to call the polling stations "the centers of atheism and of vice."

"We have warned you, so don't blame us. You have only yourselves to blame," the statement said of people who try to vote or work as election volunteers.

In typical style for American-occupied Iraq, the security measures being implemented remain unclear. According to Iraqi sources, the mobile phone network will be cut off starting Saturday, because insurgents use such phones to coordinate attacks. But the U.S. military denies this report through a spokesman, except that soldiers are telling embedded reporters to expect the phones to be off. Some Iraqi police say that all traffic will be halted except for media and official vehicles on Saturday and Sunday; others say it will be banned only during the vote itself. There were four different media credentials issued and no one I've spoken to can properly explain which ones should be used to go where.

Journalists are now living with their drivers and translators, because no one is sure if the Iraqis will even be allowed to drive to work on Saturday or Sunday.

"I went into the Green Zone with my journalist," says one experienced Iraqi fixer, who has every credential. "When I came out, they had closed two bridges and Sadoon Street [a main thoroughfare in the heart of the city]. When I asked if they would be closed for the weekend, the police didn't know."

According to one report, there will be five polling stations open to electronic media -- television and photographers -- with the following limitations: no pictures of voters, no pictures of the polling station, and no pictures of the election workers.

Like everything in Iraq, this might change. Although I was told about these rules by an Iraq official, they might not even be the ones enforced on election day. After all the hype and the U.S.'s desperate need for good publicity, it seems inconceivable that the authorities won't allow pictures of smiling voters. But that's what the woman at the Information Ministry told me. And no, she cannot give me her name. And she probably shouldn't for safety reasons.

But what's remarkable is that there may be smiling voters. Despite the bloodshed in the run-up to the election, many Iraqis are excited to vote -- or at least consider it a risk they're prepared to take, part of the broader fight against the chaos that has engulfed their country.

"We must vote, it is our only hope," says Ahmed, a Shiite in his mid-20s. "Even if we are killed, it is the only way we can fight to get our country back. The Americans can't leave now or there will be even more fighting, but if we have a government, maybe ..." He trails off and shrugs. "What can we do?"

In many ways, this election breaks down into three competing factions. Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is running a mostly secular ticket and is appealing to voters as the tough guy that can handle the insurgents. A coalition of religious Shiites led by Adbul Hakim Aziz and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, thought the favorite of the very influential Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is Allawi's main competition and could be favorites. The third major party isn't a party at all -- it's the participation of the Arab Sunni who make up around 20 percent of Iraq. Many Sunni are boycotting the vote and the insurgency is most powerful in their regions, likely to further suppress turnout. If the Sunni are not adequately represented in the 275 seats in the General Assembly being selected Sunday, the government will continue to suffer from the credibility problems facing this interim one.

Allawi's reputation as a favorite of the American Central Intelligence Agency and a former enforcer for Saddam is little hindrance; it appeals to the many Iraqis who miss the security and safety of Saddam's time.

"Iraqis only respect you if you're tough," says Osama, a very tough mix of Sunni and Shiite and my best friend in Iraq. "They don't care about democracy or freedom now, they want a tough guy who can fight and kill the people that scare them. And many people see Allawi as tough because he was with Saddam."

But does he think the elections will help anything?

"No, they are a joke," he says. "People will elect the Hakim Aziz ticket because they are Shiite and backed by Sistani. That will make the Muj [the Arabic nickname for the insurgents, from "mujahedin"] fight harder because they hate the Shiite. The Sunni are scared [because] this means Iran will control Iraq because Hakim was close to Iran. He lived there, his men [a militia known as the Badr Brigade] fought for Iran against Iraq in the war."

"The civil war starts the day after the election," he adds. His nonchalance startles me, but there's a strong argument that many Arab Sunni are fighting a nasty little war against Shiites and Kurds already.

But whether or not this Sunni prediction of a sectarian conflict comes to pass, on Friday, Shiite activists and voters took to the streets of this very dangerous capital to push for voter turnout. And they did it despite the threats, the violence and the deep sense of disappointment many Shiites feel about how the occupation has been handled.

Sure, it was only six cars and maybe 30 people. But driving around Baghdad with truck-mounted speakers and waving Iraqi flags (the old "God is the greatest" written in Saddam's hand replaced by "Vote for Iraq") is a pretty brave move considering.

Moving from the Baghdad University campus, they headed into the Karada neighborhood, the truck blaring religious music and speeches. On the front of the truck was a picture of Sistani with "In the name of God, the compassionate and merciful" emblazoned underneath in Arabic script.

This may be unsettling to American officials worried about a theocracy getting elected, but without a strong belief in the afterlife, and a certainty that election officials who are killed are martyrs who will proceed directly to heaven, very little grass-roots campaigning would get done in Baghdad today.

The signs on the side of the truck explain that Sistani has issued a fatwa -- literally a religious ruling considered the word of God -- that all Muslims have a religious duty to vote. And instead of handing out fliers for the Hakim Aziz ticket, the papers exhorted Iraqis to vote and told them where they could.

On one crowded market street, the convoy actually stopped and joined people in a small crowd and they began dancing to religious music.

"We must vote! We must vote for Iraq and for our future," exclaimed one young man waving a plastic flag.

People gathered around clapping and eagerly grabbing fliers from the four or five young kids that materialized to distribute them along the route. The genuine sense of excitement was heightened by the presence of an American journalist.

"Yes to America, you are welcome, most welcome," cried one man, who literally had tears in his eyes as the workers jumped into their cars, deciding not to linger in one place for very long. I haven't told anyone on an Iraqi street I am an American for over a year. But I did Friday.

It was hard to pin any of the activists down for an interview until one stop when I got a few minutes with an older man.

"We must vote to elect a government, we must vote for our families, our children, our country," he said.

"This is not about Sunni or Shiite. It does not matter who you vote for but you must vote. We need an elected government, because without one, the Americans will not leave. We need America to leave Iraq."

He refused to give a name, so I asked him if I could use a nickname. It is common in the Arab world to call someone "Abu" which means "father of," followed by the name of their oldest child. I made a small joke, asking if I should call him Abu Ali, after the adopted son of the Prophet Mohammed who's considered a prophet himself by the Shiites, or Abu Omar, a very common Sunni name.

He laughed and said, "Do not call me either name. Call me 'Iraqi man.'"

By Mitchell Prothero

Mitchell Prothero is a freelance journalist in Iraq.

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