Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Disparate Iraqis Vote for Stability and Security

By SAM DAGHER and STEVEN LEE MYERS BASRA, Iraq — In two crucial but very different parts of Iraq — here in strategic Basra in the south and still violent Mosul in the north — people voted in provincial elections for similar aims: security and a centralized state strong enough to fend off those who seek to divide it. The results are preliminary, but in Basra voters overwhelmingly chose the slate backed by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki because he is widely credited for restoring security to a city that was in the grip of Iranian-backed militias until April. Residents also believe that only he may be strong enough to curtail the influence of neighboring Iran. “He brought us security,” said Dhia Abdul-Hassan, 35, who is blind in one eye from a roadside bombing in 2007. He had voted for Mr. Maliki at a polling station in Basra’s sprawling Hayaniya district, where the fiercest battles against entrenched militiamen were fought last year. “We can venture out freely now, even at night.” In Mosul, the seat of Nineveh Province, the presumptive victory of Sunni Arab nationalists reflected a determination by majority Arabs to push back what they see as hostile encroachment by minority Kurds since the fall of Saddam Hussein. These Arab groups, disenfranchised from power, have embraced Mr. Maliki’s calls for a strong central state, which have put him on a collision course with Kurds. Many believe that empowering Arabs again in Mosul would also reduce much of the violence that remains, particularly because the winning Arab coalition, Al Hudba, is believed to be in communication with insurgents, mostly members of the former ruling Baath Party. “We are witnessing the revival of Iraqi nationalism,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst with the Gulf Research Center, based in Dubai. “This has unified Iraqis against a number of threats.” Mr. Alani said it was no surprise that this trend appeared to be most pronounced in the early voting results in Basra and Mosul, which he called “historic front lines.” These two cities and their surrounding regions, along with Baghdad in the center, were cobbled together in 1926 from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire to create Iraq. In the 1980s, Basra bore the brunt of the Iraq-Iran war. Mosul, with its long-troubled relations with Kurds, was the launching pad for Mr. Hussein’s atrocities against the rebellious Kurds during the same time in the adjacent Kurdistan region. In choosing Mr. Maliki, many in the south seemed willing to sacrifice more local considerations like patronage. His local candidates were largely obscure members of his Dawa Party, and thus not likely to be able to provide jobs immediately to the armies of unemployed youth or to lift Hayaniya and other militia stronghold neighborhoods like Five Miles and Qibla out of their misery. Though Mr. Maliki has been prime minister since 2006, many did not blame him for the poor state of municipal services. Entire streets and alleyways in these neighborhoods are still flooded with sewage and festering heaps of garbage. “God willing, we will get better services if his list wins,” said Rasul Hani, 18, who voted for Mr. Maliki’s slate. Using Mr. Maliki’s nickname, he added, “We will count our blessings for as long as we remain in Abu Isra’s shadow.” The most influential party in the south, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, appears to have lost to Mr. Maliki in Basra because many voters feel that it is too close to Iran and that it is working toward a decentralized Iraq, with a largely Shiite nine-province region in the south incorporating Basra. Text messages labeling the party “thoroughly Persian” were making the rounds on cellphones in Basra weeks before the elections. Mr. Hani claimed he had been offered “red notes,” bills of 25,000 Iraqi dinars, to vote for the Supreme Council’s slate. The slate issued a statement on Monday praising the whole election process, but Muhammad Rasan, a candidate on the party’s slate in Basra, said he feared that Mr. Maliki’s victory here would undercut any chance to win power for a local government better able to meet people’s needs. “He is on the wrong track,” Mr. Rasan said. Similar tensions played out in the elections in Mosul. “One of the main reasons people voted for us is that they object to the domination of the Kurdish parties,” said Atheel al-Nujaifi, leader of Al Hudba. “That was one of the most important ideas we believe in — the idea of a unified central Iraqi state.” Muhammad Hazim, 55, said on Saturday, election day, “Today we hand over Mosul to its people.” The voting and the absence of violence have raised hopes that the political tensions and violence in the region will give way to electoral legitimacy and participation. One American government official who closely followed the election suggested that the result could defuse the insurgency in Mosul by enfranchising Sunni Arabs and even insurgents, who, he argued, might have had “a political agenda all along.” The American military commander in the north, Brig. Gen. Robert B. Brown, said before the vote that he believed that the results would create a more representative and responsive regional government. “I’m very hopeful, and all indications are that this will be what will give us irreversible momentum up here in Nineveh,” he said in his headquarters at the American base in Mosul. At the same time, the success of the Sunnis could revive tensions with the Kurds, who have lived in the region for centuries, but were oppressed under Mr. Hussein, a Sunni. Khodar Khudaida Rashu, the administrator of the Qahtaniya district, west of Mosul, said that the elections would almost certainly change the political equilibrium, but not necessarily bring national unity or peace. “Some of the parties are scary,” said Mr. Rashu, who belongs to the Kurdistan Democratic Party, referring to Sunni parties. “They are anticoalition and antidemocracy. And people are afraid. Some of these groups, they pretend they work with the coalition forces, but in reality, they are like bats, who come out at night and attack.” Electing the Provincial Councils Iraqis vote for candidates for their local councils, which are similar to state legislatures in the United States. The elections will occur in 14 out of Iraq’s 18 provinces. More than 14,000 candidates are competing for 440 seats across the country. Kurdish areas The three Kurdish provinces are not holding elections. Neither is ethnically mixed Kirkuk, where Kurds want to join the semi autonomous region, and Arabs want to keep it under Baghdad’s control. Sunni areas In north and western Iraq, many Arabs boycotted the last provincial elections in 2005. Many new local politicians have entered the contest, including tribal leaders who support the U.S.-backed Awakening Councils. Shiite areas Two Shiite parties, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s Dawa Party (reorganized to play down Shiite roots), are former partners but will now compete against each other and new independent candidates. The Structure of Iraq's Government http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/03/world/middleeast/03iraq.html?_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss&pagewanted=print

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