Iraq election: Will sectarian divisions limit turnout?

A week before the Iraq election, sectarian divisions and conspiracy theories are running wild and could limit turnout.

Karim Kadim/AP
Iraqi men walk past a campaign poster depicting Mariam al-Rayis, a candidate from the Shiite-led Iraqi National Coalition, center left, and former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, right, in Baghdad, Friday. Iraq's national election is set for March 7.

A little over a week before the Iraq election, the country is a cauldron of political attacks, sectarian divisions, and conspiracy theories that could limit the turnout in the country’s most important national elections to date.

But while the threat of major attacks and the reality of equally lethal minor ones has dampened public campaigning, it has not derailed preparations by political parties and election officials for a March 7 vote seen as crucial to stability.

Around Baghdad, security concerns have limited large public events mostly to the Shiite enclave of Sadr City.Apart from the airwaves and e-mail campaigns, the most visible signs of campaigning are a forest of election posters sprouting on lampposts and traffic circles after miles of concrete blast barriers were placed off-limits by a ban on glue.

Along an overpass in central Baghdad, hundreds of images of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki exhorting building and construction line a road passing by the gaping windows of the Finance Ministry. The building was heavily damaged after it was hit by a suicide truck bomb that was the first in a wave of attacks in August.

Al Qaeda in Iraq, which has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings that have since killed hundreds of Iraqis, has threatened, through one of its affiliated groups, more violence aimed at disrupting the elections.

As a security measure, Iraq’s airports and border crossings will be closed, a car ban put in place, and a four-day government holiday declared around the polling day.

The US military, banned from going near the polling sites, is helping to place concrete blast walls around some of the 10,000 polling stations and bringing in canine explosive detection teams. The dogs are intended to compensate for a mainstay of Iraqi explosive detection found to be useless after being purchased under an $85 million contract with a private British company now being investigated for fraud. Many say the company's detectors don't work.

Iraqi security vehicles roam the main roads carrying police and soldiers with their AK-47s drawn. All leave has been canceled for Iraqi security forces.
“We are on high alert,” says federal police officer Ali Khalid, using one of the suspect explosive detectors at a checkpoint in central Baghdad.

Explaining that the wandlike device was powered by the electromagnetic energy in his body and the ground, he says he believes it is about 65 percent accurate, but only for about three hours at a time.

“A lot of times it finds teeth fillings or perfume, but it also finds weapons,” he says.

Increase in assassinations

There have been at least two assassinations of political candidates and US and Iraqi officials report an increase in assassinations of mid-level Iraqi police officers. The political violence is layered with common crime and gang-related violence, often difficult to distinguish or fully verify.

The savage killing and mutilation of an Iraqi family south of Baghdad this week appeared to be money-related rather than politically motivated, according to US officials familiar with the interrogation reports of the suspects. A low-profile political candidate connected to the controversial Shiite politician Ahmed Chalabi had said the killings were retaliation for the father of the family hanging campaign posters for him.

These parliamentary elections are the first since the US handed over control of security last June, and the first national elections in which voters can choose individual candidates as well as parties. More than 6,000 candidates are running.

The ballots, printed in Dubai, are being transported to Iraq under extremely heavy security. Each ballot is as big as an unfolded newspaper, but there are so many candidates in each province that their names don't fit on them. Instead, they are represented on the ballots by numbers.

Cynicism over Iraq’s first elected parliament - widely seen as ineffective, self-interested, and corrupt – is expected to contribute to a voter turnout unlikely to be higher than half of eligible voters.

“We know that there are people who are angry with the council,” says parliament speaker Ayad al-Samurai. He says he believes the open list in which voters elect individual candidates will lead to more responsive members of parliament.

Concern over voter turnout

Many officials are trying to lower expectations for a credible voter turnout.

“The elections will be successful if we have 50 percent taking part,” says Samurai, adding it will likely be higher among Sunni and Kurdish voters. “In some countries, the number of people taking part in the election is less than 25 percent.”

Provincial election results in Shiite areas last year showed a disenchantment with the main religious parties. Despite the banning of two prominent Sunni candidates for alleged Baathist ties, Sunni voters are expected to turn out at the polls in large numbers. They largely boycotted the last parliamentary elections in protest against the US-led, Shiite dominated process.

In a free-wheeling campaign involving allegations of sectarian killings and ties to hostile foreign governments, the major political blocs have agreed to a voluntary code of conduct renouncing foreign funding and avoiding religious discord.

Iraq has no election law forbidding funding from outside sources. US officials as well as most Iraqis believe there are substantial amounts of money flowing into the county to political candidates.

“The money from the Gulf, from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and the arms that come from Iran, and the training and practical help from Syria – this triangle is colluding to destroy Iraq’s democracy,” says Sheikh Hussein al-Tamimi, a Baghdad tribal leader.

He said he planned to vote for a candidate who was promising the unusual step of opening an office outside the Green Zone where he would keep regular office hours and see constituents.

Much of the campaigning involves either promises of jobs or gifts to potential voters.

“They call them candidates of blankets, because they are giving blankets to the poor,” says Nermin al-Mufti, a newspaper editor running in Baghdad under the Iraqiya list. “If I give him a blanket MISSING WORD know I’m insulting him. I know he’s poor – don’t give him a blanket give him a real promise,” she says.

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