BAGHDAD – Uncertainty and tension are running high in Baghdad ahead of the provincial election due Jan. 31. But this time fears are also touched by a new hope.
"Iraq is transitioning into something more stable," former Iraqi interim prime minister Ayad Allawi told IPS. "The U.S. is pulling out soon because of the new administration, so Iraqis need to take matters into their own hands," said Allawi, speaking at the headquarters of the Iraqi National Accord party in Baghdad.
Allawi, who was said to have provided "intelligence" about alleged weapons of mass destruction to the British MI6, is a former exile, and a controversial figure disliked by many in Iraq. Nevertheless, he speaks for many of the leading political figures running in the upcoming elections.
"The first grave mistake of the Americans was to dismantle the Iraqi Army and intelligences services," said Allawi, who has taken to tough talk against the U.S. in hope of garnering support from Iraqis. "And their setting of the Iraqi Governing Council along sectarian and ethnic lines also helped generate the sectarianism we are still struggling with today."
Iraq is essentially not a sectarian country, he said. "This was the excuse given for their (U.S.) mistakes."
There is less violence in Iraq today than there was even six months ago, but dozens of Iraqis continue to be killed daily. Critical infrastructure such as supply of electricity and water remains shattered. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are still more people fleeing the country than there are returning to their homes.
Many Iraqis hope that the elections will bring more stability and improve their lives.
"I just hope the elections will not be corrupt, and that the good people will win," says Ali Yassin, a day labourer in Sadr City, the sprawling slum area of Baghdad and home to roughly three million people.
Others have their doubts. "I’ll not be voting for anyone," says Salah Salman, another labourer in Sadr City. "We cannot trust any of the candidates, just like during the elections of 2005. What have they done for us? What services have they provided our country?"
The elections, for 444 seats in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, will be contested by 14,431 candidates from more 400 parties. The agenda covers a spectrum from the central issue of federalism to a range of disputes along sectarian lines.
That puts someone like Fattah Sheikh on quite another side from Ayad Allawi. Sheikh is a Sadrist, a follower of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. His constituency is the impoverished Sadr City, the poorest area of Baghdad.
"I am going to make Sadr City Iraq’s 19th province," Sheikh told IPS while campaigning along garbage-strewn streets choked with traffic. "We have more people in need than most other provinces, and this is our time to get proper political representation."
Sheikh, an energetic and charismatic politician, is campaigning actively, kissing children and shaking hands with elders as he moves about. "There are those running for office who do not talk to the people, but here I am, on foot, no guards, among my brothers and sisters."
Sheikh’s politics differs greatly from that of Allawi, because Allawi has worked closely with the U.S. government through the occupation. Sheikh has vehemently opposed the occupation from the beginning, and continues to call for immediate withdrawal of all occupation forces.
Abbas Al-Dahbi, who is also running on Sheikh’s political list, told IPS "we have hope for this election. We hope to achieve our dreams because this government didn’t achieve anything for us."
These leaders seem to be finding strong support in Sadr City. "The new people from these elections will serve us better," mechanic Aziz Sharif told IPS. "This is because the Iraqi people know their candidates this time, unlike during 2005."
The U.S. government has made it clear that this election is critical for the future stability of Iraq