Shiite and Sunni, young and old: an Iraqi family's journey to the ballot box

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When they think back to elections under Saddam Hussein, members of the Amari family laugh. Sure they went to the ballot box - motivated by fear.

"There was no choice - just the threat of punishment," says Hala al-Amari, a college student who sports a short-sleeved pink blouse and copper-highlighted hair.

She is one among several generations of the Amari family who voted Thursday despite the threat of violence, choosing who would govern Iraq for the next four years - and each choosing his or her own personal favorite.

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Thursday up to 15 million Iraqis streamed to the polls - many of them, like the Amaris, moved together through the streets as a clan. Voting was truly a family affair.

Shortly before 9 a.m., the Amaris set out for the two-mile hike to the polling station. It's a day for celebration, and Hala's mother, Inam, is well attired for the occasion. Unlike the Islamic dress she often wears, she is decked out in a smart pantsuit. And her hair and makeup are carefully done.

As they walk along, she hands out candies, and occasionally claps and sings "Mansoura Baghdad" (Victory Baghdad). It's something of a war song that was composed to arouse patriotism. But this battle, "please God," she intones, will be at the ballot box alone.

Violence came sporadically Thursday, putting only the smallest of dents in the election in comparison with January's interim vote, in which 40 people died.

As they approach the school, security checks begin. They pass through four layers of checkpoints, where they are searched and asked for identification cards. There seem to be as many police in the streets as there are voters. Hala raises her eyebrows knowingly: "It's better this way."

Family differ over whom to vote for

If families like the Amaris are any indication, voting patterns are not entirely predictable. Mostly but not exclusively Shiite, their opinions are like a palette of colors - a sampling of the promise and problems of Iraq's democracy-in-the-making.

On election eve, Hala says she is voting for Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite who is a favored winner.

Inam, then stylishly draped in an embroidered black robe and head scarf, says she is voting for a ticket known as 555, a coalition of religious Shiites closer in outlook to Tehran than Washington. Inam's mother, Basma, meanwhile, is a Sunni who is crossing sectarian lines to vote for Mr. Allawi, the former prime minister who is seen as tough on terrorism.

"We hate war!" Basma bellows with a loudness that, along with her age, leaves the family rapt. "We've lived through 30 years of it, with all its violence, and we've had enough," says the white-veiled matriarch. Basma came to vote here instead of in her neighborhood of ad-Dora, in the south of Baghdad. Because of violence she was reluctant to vote there.

"Bringing security to Iraq is the most important thing," she says. "I can't go out anymore without risking my life."

They are a family who, like most Iraqis, has known its share of loss. Mr. Hussein arrested one of Basma's brothers in the 1980s - they eventually got his body back for burial. Her recompense, she says, will be seeing Hussein's demise, not the rise of a government which might put divisive, sectarian interests first.

"Everyone has the right to choose," Inam shrugs and smiles, politely disagreeing with her mother's choice. The diversity of their opinions, the mixed nature of the family, and their willingness to place faith in candidates not necessarily considered "one of ours" point to the emergence of a rather discriminating Iraq voter.

Were stereotypes solid, Basma, a pious Sunni, would vote for the coalition of Sunni religious parties. But particularly among the educated upper middle class, it is not uncommon to find Sunnis voting for Shiites and Shiites for Sunnis - a sign that many Iraqis are hoping for more than just a chance to enhance parochial interests.

The Amaris live a life that they say could not tolerate a descent into balkanization. Shiites who have sometimes married Sunnis, they also have a few relatives who are married to Kurds.

Today, one end of their street in this relatively affluent and religiously mixed neighborhood of Karada is blocked by barbed wire, barriers, and sandbags. Guards are stationed here to protect Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish Iraqi president who lives nearby.

Inam's nephew, Ali al-Amari, says he is voting for the religious Shiite coalition because he wants to give a vote of confidence to Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari. While some members of the extended family feel Mr. Jafaari's government has been disappointing, Ali says it simply needs more time. "Eight months is not enough for a country like ours to be stable," says Ali, a soft-spoken engineer who works for the Electricity Ministry.

With calm streets, a driving lesson

Taking advantage of the holiday atmosphere brought on by the elections and the travel ban, Ali's wife and teenage daughter head out to the street, driving their maroon Chrysler. With civilian traffic barred, Ali and his wife, Wafaa - a lecturer in engineering at Baghdad University - decided to start teaching their daughter to drive on the quiet side streets.

Although he is voting for the religious Shiite coalition, Ali is no fundamentalist. Its leading party, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI, is known to have backing from Iran, but he doesn't worry about Iraq becoming a Shiite-run theocracy. "I don't think Iraqis will accept an Islamic government. We don't want our country to look like Iran, because we have too many different religions here for that."

But Ali's younger cousins - Aunt Inam's sons - see it quite differently. Walid, a Shiite, is casting his vote for Mithal al-Alusi, a Sunni. Why? Walid sees him as honest and nonsectarian. Mr. Alusi made a controversial trip to Israel, after which he was the target of an assassination attempt. Two grown sons were killed instead. "I appreciate his courage and bravery," he says.

Asked about the wide range of favored candidates in one small family, Walid smiles. "God willing, I hope that all Iraqis will turn into a family like ours and have the freedom to chose."

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