Bush or Kerry? In Baghdad, political passions run high

Call them Baghdad Dads: If America's presidential election were held tomorrow, on Iraqi soil, working-class Iraqis would be the crucial swing vote.

"The Democratic party is just a party of slogans: they only call for freedom," says Muath Karra, an eyeglass salesman. "But George W. Bush, he is brave, and he is a man of action. I hope he wins this election, because he is a genius - and brave."

Muhammed Shammari, a taxi driver, is a Kerry man. "We want John Kerry to win, because George W. Bush brought harm to America and all the world under the pretext of launching the war on terror," he says. "And generally, the Democratic Party is better than Republicans."

Thousands of miles from Boston and New York, the American horse race plays out in Iraqi terms: strongmen and wimps, doers and talkers, rulers and technocrats. Kerry has the advantage: He didn't invade their country, which counts for a lot. But while Bush is generally hated, his tough-guy image plays well on the street. "John Kerry has a good heart; he was against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," says Haidar Abdullah, a young electrician. "But the truth is, I'm a George W. Bush supporter."

Bush has a fierce cadre of devoted followers, mainly among Shiites and Kurds who suffered under Saddam Hussein. They are the silent minority.

Abbas (not his real name) is one of them. Every morning as he's leaving the house he pauses by the door. "I put my faith in God," he says, according to Muslim tradition. Then he takes a little picture of George W. Bush out of his wallet, and kisses it.

"And then I put the picture of George W. Bush back in my wallet, so it will be like a prayer," says Abbas, a video store owner.

"I made a vow: that whoever saved me from Saddam, I will kiss him every morning," says Abbas, his craggy face cracking into a grin. "So believe me, I kiss George Bush every morning."

Abbas may be in the distinct minority, but he represents an invaluable group: They'd be sure to vote, because they believe the future of their country is at stake.

"If George W. Bush loses the presidency, Iraq will lose freedom," says Abbas. "If John Kerry wins, he will withdraw the American Army. He will let the terrorists come in and do lots of things that will make Iraq less safe."

Two months ago, independent Iraqi pollster Sadoun Dulame asked 3,075 Iraqis from all over the country which US candidate they preferred. Most Iraqis scorned the question, but about 15 percent responded passionately - almost all Bush backers.

"When we asked this 15 percent why they cared, they said, 'Because the American election will affect conditions in Iraq,' " says Mr. Dulame, director of the Iraqi Center for Research and Strategic Studies. "They prefer that Bush stay. Because if Bush leaves, maybe the Democrats will adopt a new policy, and not pay so much attention to Iraq."

In a perfect reversal of US demographics, the Bush lovers tended to be more educated and clustered in cosmopolitan areas. Call them Red Iraqis. "Most of them were intellectuals," says Dulame. "US intellectuals, maybe most of them adopt Democratic values. But in Iraq, that's the reality."

While the urban elite may favor Bush, most average Iraqis are more like Ali Najem Maarouf. "Kerry said he would pull back the US Army, and this is a very good thing," says Mr. Maarouf, a street peddler. "We wish the day will come when we don't see these pigs in our streets."

There's an Arabic phrase - haki fadi, or "empty talk" - that is often used to sum up politicians' pronouncements. In Arab countries, where speeches are long and democracy is short, citizens are skeptical of promises. Most Iraqis believe Bush failed to keep his promises.

"After the war, for a short period, I supported Bush," says Mohammed Ali, a computer technician who follows US politics closely. "But after he failed to keep his promises, I stopped."

"They are both losers, and Iraq is the scapegoat," fumes Athir Kadhim, the young owner of a bag store. "We can't judge the promises of this man or that - we can only tell if he kept his word. Bush did nothing."

Faiza Abbas, a young housewife from Sadr City, Baghdad's Shiite slum, has no kind words for Bush. "When you come out of your house, you see Americans. When children go to school, they see Americans," she explodes. "Everywhere a woman wants to go, she has to be searched by American soldiers - can we accept that in Iraq?"

Dulame suspects public opinion is tipping toward Kerry, even among the educated. Their hopes of an interim government of technocrats (read: Democrats) were dashed when a CIA-linked strongman came to power.

Maybe the Fahrenheit 9/11 factor is at work. Michael Moore's translated "Stupid White Men" grins out from most bookstalls in Beirut and Jordan. His books aren't as ubiquitous in Baghdad, but bootleg copies of F9/11 are sold in the souks.

Musa Hussein and Saeed Mia, sitting in a watch-repair shop one afternoon, discuss the movie. "It's a good social satire, " says Mr. Hussein, who is pro-Kerry. "They are criticizing Bush, saying he is the biggest enemy of America."

Mr. Mia, a Bush fan, started to watch the movie. But his electricity cut out after three minutes. "I prefer that George W. Bush would win, because he served the world 100 percent," he says. "And I am the first who will vote for him."

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