Casting a vote against fear in Iraq

January 29, 2009

The last time Iraq held provincial elections four years ago, the sole question haunting people’s minds, mine included, was whether or not to venture out to vote, risking life and limb to make our way to polling places as Iraq slid into civil war.

Then, suicide and car bomb attacks were close to their peak, as sectarian violence surged between the Shi’ite majority and Sunnis who were disempowered after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

I remember that day in Jan. 2005, when Iraqis voted for local leaders and an interim national assembly, our first general election after decades of Saddam’s authoritarian rule. My mother, father and I set out on foot — travel by car was prohibited that day — to search for our polling place. We weren’t sure where we needed to be, and we ended up in the wrong spot. We walked to a second voting centre — again wrong.

We became more and more nervous that we might fall victim to a suicide bomber, who often seek out crowds. “If we survived the first and second, we won’t survive the third,” I anxiously said.But we finally found our polling place, and we cast our votes. I felt I had done something great and patriotic for Iraq.I tried to let the best interests of my country guide my choice rather than selecting a candidate along sectarian lines.

In the provincial elections on Jan. 31 this year, fear is no longer dominating Iraqis’ minds. They are too busy deliberating who will be the right person to represent them in provincial councils that are major local power brokers. That is because the sectarian and insurgent bloodshed unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, which has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis, has eased.

Car bombs and other attacks are still common, but a semblance of normal life has returned as Iraqi police and army units grow more proficient and prepare to take over from the 140,000 U.S. troops who must leave Iraq by the end of 2011. All this has encouraged people to return to their jobs, to go out shopping, to visit parks and restaurants — and to think more freely about candidates for public office.

Baghdad is still divided by giant concrete blast walls, but they are now adorned with colourful campaign posters. Some candidates have floated giant balloons with their names. In 2005, candidates were afraid to show their faces, and the campaigning that did occur was muted.

This week I saw four campaign vehicles with music blasting out of the windows, like a wedding ceremony. Candidates are holding rallies in parks. These are refreshing sights. Many Iraqis today are very sceptical about their politicians, whom they blame for the years they have lived without proper services, jobs or security. But when I hear people debating the merits of different candidates, even arguing, I am thrilled. The fear that haunted us is fading.

(Reuters photo: Iraqi security forces check policewomen before they vote in Kerbala/Mushtaq Muhammad)

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