Is It All About Feeling Safe?

Election Week in Iraq

Is It All About Feeling Safe?

Election Week in Iraq

Is It All About Feeling Safe?
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Jan. 26 2005 1:22 PM

Election Week in Iraq

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Dear Ghaith,

Yesterday, I actually came across a man who was going to vote for Ahmad Chalabi!

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"Ahmad Chalabi!" I said and nearly spluttered. "Isn't he about to be arrested again?"

"I trust him," said Mohammad Alami implacably. Alami is a nice, educated Shiite Baghdadi, a telecom engineer.

"But he's on the Sistani-Shiite cleric list," I countered.

"Yes, but if he is with them, they will not make a religious government."

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Fatin, Mohammad's wife, however, a member of the Chalabi clan, said she was going to vote for Allawi.

"It is democracy, you see," she said, laughing at her husband a little to demonstrate her independence.

I asked her if she was afraid of voting, and she said that it was her duty. They want some security, they are afraid of a religious takeover, they want to live reasonably, peaceably. A year ago, their 11-year-old son was kidnapped and killed. Something must be better than this.

Across town, in the mujahideen stronghold of Saidiya, an area populated mostly by formerly proud Sunni army officers, a friend scoffed when I asked him if he was going to vote.

"How can we vote under occupation?" asked Ali, folding his arms over his chest. "Our authority, the Muslim Cleric Association, has boycotted these elections," said his sister. "And we will obey this. We don't want to give the election legitimacy. Our vote would be like adding a brick in the wall of that government."

There are no policemen in Saidiya, the roads are watched by mujahideen checking cars. Last week, insurgents bombed and raided the district council building at the end of Ali and his sister's street. It is now reduced to a mangled concrete pancake, the same as the police station that stood opposite it until a month ago. Despite all this, or perhaps because of it—Ali and his family are very seriously Sunni—they do not feel any fear. The family is very supportive of the insurgency. Jihad, they maintain, is important for its own sake, because it is a holy thing done for God. The result is not so important. For now, there are not enough mujahideen to take complete control of their neighborhood, but still, Ali's mother told me, "We feel safe."

Allawi's election posters show a pair of eyes, crinkled slightly at the corners as if he is trying on a genial smile. The eyes belong to a blustering, jowly face, an old-fashioned Baathist face (Allawi split from Saddam in the early '70s). A lot more Iraqis than you would think, it seems, are not put off by the reasonably substantiated rumors of his summarily shooting terrorist detainees in the head in front of his American handlers. Iraqis call him a "tough guy." I saw graffiti the other day that read simply, "Strong man." And I thought, well, when there is anarchy, what must you hope for except the brutal repression of the anarchy?

No one knows how the votes will balance between the Shiite list and Allawi's list and other contenders. This balance is important in determining the makeup of the transitional assembly that will draw up a constitution. But perhaps the more important balance in contention is that between anarchy and political process. Because what struck me the most about Ali and his family was their confidence. Whatever happens at the polls, the insurgency, they feel, is only gathering strength.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is an Iraqi freelance photo-journalist. He is also a columnist for Britain's Guardian newspaper. Wendell Steavenson is British/American writer whose work from Iraq has appeared in Slate, the Financial Times magazine, and Granta. Her first book,Stories I Stole, is a chronicle of Edvard Shevardnadze's Georgia. Abdul-Ahad and Steavenson met in Baghdad at the end of 2003 and plan to marry at the end of this year.