Iraq votes: Bloody road to freedom

By Kim Sengupta, PATRICK COCKBURN, KIM SENGUPTA AND RAYMOND WHITAKER

BAGHDAD - Mohammed Mahmoud is a rare figure - a Sunni Muslim living in Baghdad who is prepared to say he will vote in Iraq's election, though he is not foolhardy enough to allow his photograph to be taken.

In Basra, Iraq's second city, Sayed Kardan Atemini is more typical. He is among the millions of Shiites who planned to turn out in an election they believe will give power to the country's majority community for the first time.

Yet neither man is without misgivings. The euphoria shown by Iraqi exiles as they voted in foreign countries is absent in Iraq.

Although the election is the closest Iraq has come to a free and fair poll, its shortcomings are impossible to ignore.

Much of the country is in the grip of a bitterly fought insurgency, daily life is a catalogue of power failures and shortages, and millions of Mahmoud's fellow Sunni Arabs are either too afraid to vote or heeding the calls of their leaders to stay away. Yesterday, despite the security measures in place, more than a dozen polling stations were bombed and at least 30 people killed in militant attacks. It is against this background that the two men were venturing out to vote.

"I have waited a long, long time for this, and it will be very irresponsible not to take part," said Atemini.

"A lot of promises have been made. They say it will be for the future of Iraq. If that is true, inshallah [God willing] that will be good.

"If it is not, then we must think of something else. But we Iraqis must set up our own government, and then it will be time for the Americans and the British to go."

Five other members of his family planned to vote, but they were not going to the polling station at Basra's al-Yamamah school together.

"This may seem strange, but we need to be separated if a bomb goes off," said Atemini. "We have to think about the children. We all believe there is danger that people will try to sabotage the elections. This is Iraq, and we must be careful."

Mahmoud, a middle-aged engineer who runs a stationery shop in central Baghdad's inner Karada district, was to vote at a polling station in a school close to his home.

Karada is famous in Baghdad for its strong sense of communal solidarity - when the rest of the city was being looted after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the banks and government offices were defended by local people, many of whom live above their shops.

American soldiers, with Iraqi soldiers and police, were sealing off the main roads with rolls of razor wire, and cars were careering down side streets to avoid American armoured vehicles, in case they were attacked by insurgents.

For all his determination to vote, Mahmoud did not think life would get much better. Most people in Karada were expected to vote, so Mahmoud could cast his ballot in comparative safety.

Even if it is known that he has voted he will not, unlike people living in other districts of Baghdad, be in much danger. He is not typical, though, of the neighbourhood in which he lives and works: 90 per cent of people in Karada are Shiites, and almost 10 per cent are Christian.

Who will the two men support? Mahmoud would not declare his preference, but he would not be voting for a religious party.

"They might vote on religious or ethnic grounds in the far south or in Kurdistan," he said, "but in Baghdad and Basra people are better educated, and they will just vote for what they think is the best party."

Atemini said: "We have had arguments over which list to vote for, and I have not ordered anyone in the family to go against their wish.

"But everyone we speak to agrees that we need a strong man as Prime Minister. I do not know who that is going to be.

"Ayatollah Sistani [Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric] is a very holy man, but he does not want to be Prime Minister."

The violence is not far from anyone's mind. "If you want to have a stable Iraq, you must have a real dialogue with the resistance here, the men who carry arms," said Mahmoud.

"Lots of my friends are not voting for this reason. They tell me they think what is happening is just an American show to impress the international community."

Atemini does not sympathise with this viewpoint. "It is a pity if the Sunnis do not vote. We want to see Shiites and Sunnis working together to build this country. Ayatollah Sistani has said it is our duty to vote."

Mahmoud believes the abstention of most of the Sunnis will permanently destabilise the country.

"It is like making a table with only three legs. It will never stand up straight."

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