Amid struggles, an Iraqi family will vote

The Monitor has followed the Methboubs since before the war

Sitting in her dark, cramped apartment during another seemingly interminable power failure, Karima Selman Methboub promises to cast aside her family's fears of violence and doubts about the new Iraq to vote in landmark elections on Sunday.

"We are under the mercy of Allah - I will take all my family with me," says the matriarch, nodding at some of her eight children. "If something will happen, we will all die together."

"We will go directly, suddenly, do our job there, and come back," says Mrs. Methboub, making clear that no car bombs will stop her from a process that, she says, could hardly make things worse.

"Up to now, I don't know who we will vote for," she explains, as one daughter brings sweet tea for guests. "We think after the election, the situation will change for the better - we will have a new government."

The Methboub family is poor, anxious for their future. Like many Iraqis, they find that daily life under the US occupation carries as many risks and hardships as the decades under Saddam Hussein.

But the Methboubs, whom the Monitor first wrote about in late 2002, are also a microcosm of the new pressures and contradictory yearnings that are coming into sharp focus as a post-Hussein Iraq chooses its leaders for the first time.

The family has Sunni roots, but practices the Shiite faith. They note with sadness how much more secure they felt under Mr. Hussein's iron rule.

The school that several of the girls attend will serve as a voting station - a secret that got out long ago.

And the new son-in-law has taken a new job as a policeman - a choice made without the approval of Zainab, who is his wife and Karima's daughter. On election day, he will be standing guard at a polling place - possibly his family's - wearing a black balaclava that hides his face and holding an assault rifle.

"Day by day, the situation gets worse and worse," laments Methboub, a widow who had to give up her work as a breadmaker because of the rising cost of propane gas. She is now a cleaner at a hotel. Only two in the family have work; one son serves tea at a local political office.

Four family members can vote, and they all intend to.

The family has been worse off in the past, says Methboub. Just two years ago, she had to sell furniture to pay school fees.

Today, two daughters indulge in small luxuries: one's toenails are painted with silver polish; another wears makeup when she goes out. And when there is electricity, it powers a television and satellite receiver.

But the yellow walls of the apartment are streaked in places, evidence of an overpacked household. The carpet maintains barely a shred of its original integrity.

And daily life is a struggle. An insurgent bomb has knocked out water for five days. Earlier on this day, the lights flickered on briefly - for the first time in two days - then sputtered out, to return again for less than an hour. Visitors arrive to find oldest daughter Fatima on the sidewalk, just back from an unsuccessful hunt for cheap kerosene for lamps.

"I wish I could vote," says Fatima, after returning to the small apartment. At 17, she is one year shy of the minimum voting age. "This is a duty for me. Yes, I am afraid, because it will be a very difficult day."

Dangerous, too, if the insurgents can overcome unprecedented security measures and fulfill vows to disrupt the vote.

"When people complain about no electricity and no water, in fact [now] there is no government - it can do nothing for them," says Amal, a teenage daughter who kept a diary during the war, which the Monitor excerpted, and was later invited to South Korea as a peace envoy. "But after the election, the government will have no excuses."

Still, questions remain for this family, and many others, about who is running on the 111 party lists, most of which have remained secret to protect the candidates, and who will fill the 275 seats of a parliament tasked with writing a new constitution.

"People don't know anything about this election," says Amal. "Is the election fair? Will it be safe? Everyone is suspicious of elections, and what will happen."

The family has heard a rumor that those who do not vote will not receive a new food ration card, the document held by every Iraqi family that is being used to form the voter lists.

Like so many Iraqis, they want the American occupation to end, but they also recognize the risks of US forces leaving before Iraqi units are strong enough to take over.

"Under Saddam, when we went to vote, we did not worry about bombs," says Methboub, adjusting her head scarf. "If the Americans leave, I think the terrorists will get inside every house, and kill the people."

She believes the US could fix Iraq's electricity woes "in one day" if it wanted to, but doesn't in order "to make us pay attention to these things."

"Saddam destroyed us from one side," Methboub says, chuckling at the irony. "The Americans destroyed us from the other side. For me, I am an optimist. Things will get better."

This vote will be like no other that Iraq has ever seen. The last time Methboub and her son-in-law, Ali, cast ballots, in October 2002, Hussein officially won 100 percent of the vote. The family laughs when they recall how, after the results were announced, a neighbor came to them and said "they are liars," because she had managed to get away without voting.

But others had to take it more seriously. As a member of the elite Republican Guard in the northern city of Kirkuk, Ali faced another ritual.

"They brought needles, passed them around, and everybody pricked their fingers to vote with their blood," says Ali, a policeman with a slight frame. He was in the Guard for seven years - experience that allowed him to step right into his current job a month ago, sidestepping additional training.

"Everyone chanted: 'Our blood and soul for you, Saddam!' " laughs Amal, who was a member of her school's Baath youth group before the war. "They even said: 'Saddam: Your name shakes America!' "

Still, there is some nostalgia for those days, even though one of the Methboub sons spent time in Abu Ghraib prison. The other older boy was conscripted into the Army, but survived the US onslaught while serving at an antiaircraft position in Mosul.

"I was not angry that Saddam was gone, but I was angry because of my country, the suffering of the people, the blood on the streets, the killing," says Methboub. "This is disastrous."

The American presence hasn't been without some benefit. Duha, one of the twin 12-year-old girls, says the US brought "satellite TV and mobile phones, and that's all."

US contractors also renovated the twins' school, though the girls say their teachers stole some of the improvements for themselves. Only five of every 10 workbooks were handed out, the girls say; the remainder were sold. Teachers also took new, US-supplied computer monitors and replaced them with their own older ones.

The change has brought work for Ali, but Zainab just clicks her tongue with disapproval when asked about her new husband's line of work - one of the most dangerous jobs in Iraq, and one that is often targeted by extremists.

"I did it behind her back," Ali confesses.

"What can he do?" explains Methboub, trying to mollify her daughter. "He needs a job, and there is nothing else."

When the lights go out again, Ali goes into the kitchen, but can't start the small generator. The operation spills some diesel on the floor; more tea is served. Two small kerosene lamps cast an eerie glow.

Ali says the security forces are doing everything in their power to make election day safe - that there are going to be so many forces in Baghdad that the insurgents won't be able to move easily.

"We aren't afraid, because [interim Prime Minister] Iyad Allawi has declared a state of emergency," says Amal, when asked if she is concerned about her school being used as a polling station. "I think this procedure will prevent explosions in our school."

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