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Bloodbath or new beginning?

For many Iraqis the polls represent a new beginning.
PTI | By Agence France-Presse, Baghdad
UPDATED ON JAN 29, 2005 04:20 PM IST

Iraqis go to the polls on Sunday in a war-like atmosphere of blast walls, razor wire and curfews to select a national assembly that could change the course of the country's history.

Yet, despite insurgent intimidation and mayhem, many ordinary Iraqis believe they should vote.

The capital is expected to become a major battleground during the election. But for those who's lives were blighted by decades of Saddam Hussein's rule and also the savage violence that followed his ouster, the elections represent a new beginning.

The United States, which invaded in March 2003, and Iraqi officials are banking on a high turnout by the Shiite majority and long-suffering Kurds to endow the country's first free election in five decades with legitimacy.

It is doubtful even the threat of violence from extremists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, will scare the long oppressed Shiites and Kurds away.

The landmark poll will select a 275-member parliament that will draft a permanent constitution before the population votes again for a permanent government at the end of 2005.

Indeed, despite the bloodshed and uncertainty, some like 32-year-old Shiite Fadel Qadem, an election observer in Hilla, south of Baghdad, forsee a bright future.

The upheaval of the past two years has not been kind to Qadem, who is unemployed after suffering under the old regime, but he believes good times are just around the bend.

"I hope things will change after the elections. We'll see a dramatic change," he said.

The Iraqi election commission on Friday predicted a 57 percent turnout for the election.

"There are 14.2 million eligible voters and we think about eight million will come to vote," Farid Ayar, a spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission (IECI) said.

The pivotal test for the election will be the central and northern Sunni Muslim regions, where an entrenched insurgency, rooted deep in the population, has vowed to ruin the January 30 polls.

Many Sunnis, used to being Iraq's elite for decades, have struggled with the rise of the Shiite and Kurds. Other Sunnis are reluctant to vote out of fear of retribution from the insurgents who have distributed pamphlets with death threats.

"I think the insurgents will carry out attacks ... especially on the morning of election day to create the image and perception it is unsafe to go out," a US officer said.

What will persuade the Sunnis to vote remains a mystery, but they are clearly not a monolith in their viewpoints.

In battleground Sunni provinces like Salahuddin and Diyala, there could still be a high turnout. The governors of the two regions predict respectively turnouts of between 40 and 50 per cent and 60 per cent respectively.

A State Department poll, from December, said some 41 per cent of the people in Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, and Diyala's capital Baquba were likely to vote.

Clearly the call by influential Sunni clerics to boycott the polls is not heeded across the board.

In Diyala, the local chapter of the Islamic Party has reversed a decision and decided to contest the local elections, while the parent organisation skipped out of the polls due to the dangers.

The key issue for Sunnis remains security, which could tip the balance either way in their decision on whether to vote.

In the dangerous Adhamiyah district of Baghdad, where the insurgency has found a haven, it appeared people were seriously considering casting a ballot.

"The National Assembly is going to happen. Each voter must choose the candidate he believes in," said Sheikh Moayed al-Adhami, imam at Abu Hanifa mosque where a typical Friday prayer is filled with fiery rhetoric, often against the US presence in Iraq.

"We must choose the best-suited people, the wisest, the most intelligent and patient," he said.

Leaving the Abu Hanifa mosque, some prayergoers said they were inclined to vote if the situation was quiet on Sunday.

"The largest voting centre is near my house. If I see the place is calm, I will go and vote without hesitation because I believe in these elections," said Sheikh Abu Ali, wearing a traditional robe.

But at other conservative mosques, people did not share this optimism and exhibited the anger that has gripped the Sunni community.

At Umm al-Qura mosque, Qais Ihsan, 56, made his choice simply for reasons of personal safety, as he braced for violence on election day. "I do not want to be a martyr for the vote," he said.

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