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Iraq divided over value of election

The biggest chasm is between Shiites, Sunnis

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Linda Williams, left, and Dalia Ridha help Iraqi immigrant Ibtisam Alasady register in Irvine, Calif., to vote in the Iraqi election.

Linda Williams, left, and Dalia Ridha help Iraqi immigrant Ibtisam Alasady register in Irvine, Calif., to vote in the Iraqi election.

Chris Carlson, Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Hejaz Hazim, a computer engineer who could not find a job in computers and now cleans clothes, slammed his iron into a dress shirt the other day and let off a burst of steam about the coming election.

"This election is bogus," Hazim said. "There is no drinking water in this city. There is no security. Why should I vote?"

Across town in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, a grocer called Abu Allah stood behind his pyramids of fruit and said that no matter what, he was going to the polls.

"Even if there's a bomb in my polling place," he said, "I will go in it."

If Iraq was ever a divided country, it is especially divided now.

With Iraq's crucial election coming up one week from today, on Jan. 30, people here still have strikingly different views on the vote, with the disparities apparently based not on class or education or sex or age but on the country's stubbornly durable fault lines of ethnic and religious affiliation.

The biggest chasm seems to be between the most powerful groups in Iraq: the Shiites and the Sunnis. Every single Shiite interviewed for this article said he or she planned to vote. Though there are a few Sunni leaders running for office, all the Sunnis interviewed, except one, said they were going to boycott. That could mean a humiliation for American forces and the new Iraqi government, who have relentlessly pounded the Sunni areas in a so far unsuccessful campaign to wipe out the resistance.

Granted, the opinions of 50 to 60 people, all told, hardly constitute a scientific sample. But they are revealing.

When asked for his thoughts on the election process, Jabbar Saeed, a businessman in the Sunni-dominated city of Fallujah, which has been reduced to rubble not once but twice, said Zionists were behind the election and added, "This election is not free or honest."

As for the future, he said, "things will turn worse."

Iraq has always been an uneasy mix of Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians and smaller ethnic minorities. The country was glued together by colonial powers after World War I and held intact by totalitarian rule.

Now, after nearly two years of violent upheaval, many in Iraq and beyond see this election, in which 111 political parties are vying for seats in a newly created national assembly, as the make-or-break moment for the country's survival.

The Rev. Zarya Benjamin, a Syrian Catholic priest in Baghdad, is hopeful.

"When people finally taste freedom, this country will turn around," he said in his drafty, cavernous church.

But then, between a moment's thought and a breath of frankincense-flavored air, he conceded: "Well, the resistance might not totally go away after Jan. 30. But it will be less."

The biggest obstacle to unity and peace is the Sunni vote — or the lack of it.

For decades, the Sunni Arabs, including Saddam Hussein, ruled Iraq, even though they make up only 20 percent of the population, compared with the Shiites, who constitute 60 percent. But since the American-led invasion, many Sunnis have lost their jobs, their status and their power. In protest, many of the Sunni parties have pulled out of the voting. In Adamiya, a Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad where American tanks have blown apart market stalls, it is hard to find even an election poster.

"Let me tell you something important," lectured Walid Muhammad, the imam of a major Sunni mosque here. "As long as my country is under occupation, I feel that my vote means nothing."

On election day, he said, he will stay home.

So will Fatheya Jalal, a wizened fortuneteller in Adamiya. Her main concern, as with many potential voters, is security, though whether it will stop them from going to the polls seems to depend mostly on which group they belong to.

"I'm scared of being out there," Jalal admitted. "I don't want to get hurt. Everybody knows voters will be targeted."

The security situation has become particularly precarious. Sometimes it is impossible to tell who is who. Many police officers wear street clothes and ski masks. Many insurgents dressed in government-style uniforms have waved down cars and killed people.

Sheiban Sabir, an agricultural engineer in the northern city of Mosul, was the lone Sunni to express a willingness to vote, but with a heavy condition.

"I will go, but only if there is security," Sabir said.

That may be a tall order in crime-ridden Mosul, home to a mushrooming insurgency.

Many Sunni voters say they do not know enough about the candidates to vote. Because so many politicians have been gunned down, many candidates have shied away from public events and some even refuse to reveal their names.

But that has not discouraged the Shiites. When asked what she knew about the mechanics of this election, the matriarch of a Shiite family — who gave her name as Om Hassan and who on a recent day was out buying tomatoes from Abu Allah at the grocery — said she knew nothing.

"But I will vote," she said eagerly. "Right next to my husband."

Abu Mallak, who runs a real estate office in Sadr City, where last year Shiite guerrillas wearing flip-flops took on American armored battalions, said this election was the key to Iraq's long-awaited liberation.

"We don't have the strength to fight the Americans militarily, so we must use the law," he said. "I'm sick of seeing the American tanks with my own eyes. My vote is a way to get rid of them."

He said his two sons worked for the Iraqi election commission, an agency that is a prime target of the insurgency. Every morning their mother weeps when they leave home.

"She always asks me to stop them," he said. "I always refuse."

Most Shiites interviewed said they were going to vote for the United Iraqi Alliance, the union of the two main Shiite religious parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Islamic Dawa Party. The combination ticket has been tacitly endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's revered Shiite cleric.

"It's the right ticket," said Khadim Fadhil Abbas, a caretaker at the Khadimiya shrine in Baghdad, a popular Shiite pilgrimage site. "All the candidates are Shiite."

The next most popular party among the Shiites is the Iraqi National Accord, a secular slate led by Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, which includes some Sunni candidates.

Religious identity was a touchy subject for several voters.

"Why do foreigners always ask Shiite or Sunni?" Hazim, the computer engineer turned laundry worker, who is a Sunni.

Truth be told, the election seems to be sharpening sectarian and ethnic differences, because in the absence of substantial campaigning, many voters are falling back on the one thing they do know about the candidates: their sect and ethnicity.

The Kurdish population, mostly in the safer north, making up nearly 20 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, is as energized by the election as the Shiites, and Kurdish turnout is expected to be very high.

Unlike the Shiites, who have several parties to pick from, the two Kurdish powerhouses, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, have banded together on one ticket, making voting even more inviting.

"If anybody knows the value of democracy, the difference between living with it and without it, it is the Kurds," said Fadel Hayat, a Kurdish painter in Baghdad.

Haval Muhammad, a Kurdish laborer in Baghdad, said he was not expecting the elections to deliver a miracle in good governance.

"We will have a democracy," Muhammad said. "But not a perfect one."

The Christian population, about 3 percent of Iraq's people, is not quite as monolithic as the Kurds. No doubt, most will vote and many expressed a typical dose of Iraqi fatalism.

"Scared?" said Vivian Lazar, who was lounging on the balcony of her apartment block in Baghdad. "If God wants me, he can take me. I'm voting."

There was one thing, though, that many Iraqis interviewed for this article, from all groups, agreed on: the novelty of free elections. Abdul Khadim Ali, a portrait painter, remembers the days of Saddam's elections and how there were not 111 spots on the ballot but two: yes or no.

"Some Baathist guy once came to our house and told my family we didn't have to go to the trouble of filling out our ballots — he'd do it for us," he said, referring to Saddam's party.

"This time," Ali said, "I'm marking my own box."