Iraq

CAMPAIGN OF FEAR

Terror may keep many Iraqis away from the polls on Jan. 30, writes ADNAN R. KHAN

ADNAN R. KHAN January 31 2005
Iraq

CAMPAIGN OF FEAR

Terror may keep many Iraqis away from the polls on Jan. 30, writes ADNAN R. KHAN

ADNAN R. KHAN January 31 2005

CAMPAIGN OF FEAR

Iraq

Terror may keep many Iraqis away from the polls on Jan. 30, writes ADNAN R. KHAN

ADNAN R. KHAN

A BOMB BLAST is a crude but effective substitute for a wake-up call. As shattered glass rains down on your bed, you emerge from that twilight zone between dream and reality to find that your hotel-room door has been ripped open. With the smell of explosives flooding the room, you fumble your way to the balcony, where you look out at the damage on the street below and listen to the approaching police sirens.

Fear has all of Baghdad and the surrounding area in its clutches, even as the ballot boxes for the Jan. 30 election arrive by the planeloads. “I wouldn’t recommend going any further,” says a U.S. Marine at the last checkpoint before the city, still another 150 km to the south through open desert. “It’s no-man’s-land for the next 50 miles. The bad guys are out there and if something happens, we won’t be able to reach you.” As a cold desert wind blows, the Marine barks orders to a grunt on the roof of an armoured Humvee who’s turned to watch us. “Eyes on the desert!” he snaps. “Stay sharp.”

My driver, a Sunni Arab I met in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan and the only one willing to take me to Baghdad, shrugs his shoulders and asks me to put away my Canadian passport, taking my Pakistani one in its stead. “From now on, no English,” he says. “Better still, no talking at all.” We climb back into his rusty Caprice Classic and lurch back onto the road.

I’ve been on this route before, in what can loosely be called safer times, when Baghdad to Erbil was considered the road trip of choice for vacationing war journalists. It was a busy highway then, not the ghost road it’s become today—bleak asphalt populated only by the odd dog chasing our car. I remember relaxing on this road, while my driver would throw on some Arab pop and tap his fingers to the beat. But on this occasion, every dusty hillock has become a potential ambush point, and in my imagination every deserted overpass bristles with phantom attackers.

It’s impossible to immunize yourself against the fear. The car bomb outside my hotel in Baghdad’s Karada Out district doesn’t help. Meant for the Australian embassy, it’s one of five to detonate in a span of five hours

on the morning of Jan. 19. Like many of the attacks that have plagued Baghdad in the run-up to the Jan. 30 election, its victims are innocent bystanders. It also shatters any illusions I still have about the coming vote. Elections are supposed to be about hope, but there’s precious little of that here.

“Everything is mixed up,” says Raad, a 3 3-year old carpenter trying to keep up with rebuilding a city where structures keep being blasted into rubble. “Everyone’s too scared and confused to think about voting.” Speculation over how election day will unfold ranges wildly. In spite of stringent security precautions, many Iraqis are still expecting a bloodbath.

At a waterside café across the Tigris River from one of Saddam Hussein’s former presidential palaces, patrons agree that heading to the polls is as good as heading to your grave. The bombings ofjan. 19, which killed 26 and wounded dozens more, were “only a small taste of what will happen on Jan. 30,” says Kassim Ali, a 40year-old blacksmith from Mahmudiyah, a village just south of Baghdad in an area so violent it’s called the “Triangle of Death.” Insurgents in his town have threatened to kill anyone seen at the polling stations; people are refusing even to fill out registration cards for fear that the information will fall into the wrong hands, with fatal results.

Jalal Akram, 23, says that in Zafraniya, another village in the Triangle of Death, insurgents have plastered walls with their own twisted version of election posters. “The message,” he says, “reads: ‘Anyone who goes to the polls will have a present waiting for them—a bomb.’ ” Raad, one of the few people I meet who intends to vote, seems resigned to the possibility that it may be the last thing he ever does. “I’m used to bombs and attacks,” he says. “If you’re already wet, why worry about the rain?”

Getting voters out is a major task facing anyone involved in the election. But the various parties vying for a place in the 275seat National Assembly have also been hampered by the fact that campaigning has been next to impossible. “It’s too dangerous,” admits Najeeb Mohy al Deen, a member of the central committee of the Sunni-based National Democratic party, which has 50 candidates contesting seats throughout Iraq. But he calls on Iraqis to muster the “courage and take this next step in Iraq’s history.”

Most parties have been limited to rapidfire postering and the publishing of party newsletters. But Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic party has taken a novel approach to campaigning under fire, turning the street outside its Baghdad headquarters into a political checkpoint, complete with armed guards, where party members distribute posters showing idyllic (and peaceful) scenes from Kurdistan. “We hope to inspire the people in central Iraq to vote by showing them what peace can bring,” says one of the campaigners.

At the headquarters of the dominant Shia party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the call to voters is peppered with a message of religious duty. “This is the second Karbala,” says RedhaJ. Taki, head of political relations, referring to the battle in the late seventh century in which Imam Hussein, the archetypal martyr in Shia religious tradition, was killed by Sunnis in the holy city of Karbala. Most Shias, he explains, see Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born Sunni leader of the main insurgent group trying to undermine the elections, as Yezid, the caliph of Damascus, who, in Shia tradition, betrayed Imam Hussein.

It’s potent symbolism that appears to be working. “I will definitely vote,” says 35year-old Muhammad Ali, a Shia. “It is my duty.” Like all the Shias he knows in Baghdad, Muhammad is determined to heed the call of his spiritual leader, the Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, to go to the polls. Over lunch at his brother-in-law’s house, he admits he is afraid, but adds that fear is something the Shia of Iraq have lived with for decades.

His brother-in-law has a different point of

view. Kadhim Murad al Hilli, 45, is a Sunni Muslim, former Baath party member, and staunch supporter of Saddam Hussein. “I cried for two days when the president was captured,” Kadhim says. It’s an odd mix at the table, the Shia and the Baathist, and it gets odder still when two friends, an anti-Baath Sunni and a Syriac Christian, arrive to join the party.

Kadhim denounces the election as a tool of foreign powers determined to shatter Iraq. “Saddam united this country,” he argues. “He despised sectarianism. This election is only about religious and ethnic sects. It will break apart the country.” He will boycott the vote, he says, not out of fear but because of his duty to Iraq. The Sunni and the Christian, both a little dumbfounded by Kadhim’s tirade, point to the deteriorating security

situation as their reason for avoiding polling stations. “The fact is,” says Khachek, the Christian, “everyone would vote if it was safe to do so—except Kadhim, of course. We want to vote but we value our lives more.” Muhammad’s argument that he must vote out of religious duty, no matter how eloquently he frames it, doesn’t convince anyone.

Three radically different views—but expressed without any brandishing of automatic weapons. Unfortunately, even Kadhim admits this sort of tolerance is in short supply. “We need national reconciliation first before any fair elections will be possible,” he says, and the others agree. On the war-torn streets of Baghdad, reconciliation seems like a distant dream. On Feb. 21, another car bomb explodes outside a Shia mosque in the south of the city, killing 15, wounding dozens more, driving Shias and Sunnis even further apart. And making it even more impossible to escape the fear. IJl