Iraq election: Freedom's bloody road

Yesterday more than a dozen polling stations were bombed and 17 people killed. Yet today Iraqis take the first dangerous steps to democracy. Special report by Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad, Kim Sengupta in Basra and Raymond Whitaker in London
Click to follow

Mohammed Mahmoud is a rare figure - a Sunni Muslim, living in Baghdad, who is prepared to say that he is going to vote in today's election, though he is not foolhardy enough to allow his photograph to be taken.

Mohammed Mahmoud is a rare figure - a Sunni Muslim, living in Baghdad, who is prepared to say that he is going to vote in today's election, though he is not foolhardy enough to allow his photograph to be taken.

In Basra, Iraq's second city, Sayed Kardan Atemini is more typical. He is among the millions of Shias who plan to turn out in an election which they believe will give power to the country's majority community for the first time. Yet neither man is without misgivings. The euphoria shown by Iraqi exiles as they voted in Britain and 13 other countries is absent in Iraq.

Although today's election is the closest Iraq has ever come to a free and fair poll, its shortcomings are impossible to ignore. Much of the country is in the grip of a bitterly fought insurgency, daily life is a catalogue of power failures and shortages, and millions of Mr Mahmoud's fellow Sunni Arabs are either too afraid to vote or heeding the calls of their leaders to stay away.

Yesterday, despite all the security measures in place, more than a dozen polling stations were bombed and 17 people were killed in militant attacks. It is against this background that the two men will be venturing out to vote.

"I have waited a long, long time for this, and it will be very irresponsible not to take part," said Mr Atemini. "A lot of promises have been made. They say it will be for the future of Iraq. If that is true, inshallah, that will be good.

"If it is not, then we must think of something else. But we Iraqis must set up our own government, and then it will be time for the Americans and the British to go."

Five other members of his family plan to vote this morning, but they will not be going to the polling station at Basra's al-Yamamah school together.

"This may seem strange, but we need to be separated if a bomb goes off," said Mr Atemini. "We have to think about the children. We all believe there is danger that people will try to sabotage the elections. This is Iraq, and we must be careful."

Mr Mahmoud, a middle-aged engineer who runs a stationery shop in central Baghdad's inner Karada district, will be voting at a polling station in a school close to his home. Karada is famous in Baghdad for its strong sense of communal solidarity - when the rest of the city was being looted after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the banks and government offices were defended by local people, many of whom live above their shops. There were a few shops open in Karada yesterday, but they were expecting their customers to come from the district.

American soldiers, along with Iraqi soldiers and police, were sealing off the main roads with rolls of razor wire, and cars were careering down side streets to avoid American armoured vehicles, in case they were attacked by insurgents. Mr Mahmoud said that if he did not live nearby he would not have opened his stationery shop.

For all his determination to vote he did not think life would get much better. Most people in Karada are expected to vote, so Mr Mahmoud can cast his ballot in comparative safety. Even if it is known that he has voted he will not, unlike people living in other districts of Baghdad, be in much danger. He is not typical, though, of the neighbourhood in which he lives and works: 90 per cent of people in Karada are Shia, and almost 10 per cent are Christian.

Who will the two men support? Mr Mahmoud would not declare his preference, but he will not be voting for a religious party. "They might vote on religious or ethnic grounds in the far south or in Kurdistan," he said, "but in Baghdad and Basra people are better educated, and they will just vote for what they think is the best party."

Mr Atemini said: "I am going to vote with my mother, my wife, my brother and his wife and daughter.

"We have had arguments over which list to vote for, and I have not ordered anyone in the family to go against their wish.

"But everyone we speak to agrees that we need a strong man as Prime Minister. I do not know who that is going to be. Ayatollah Sistani [Iraq's most senior Shia cleric] is a very holy man, but he does not want to be Prime Minister."

The violence is not far from anyone's mind. "If you want to have a stable Iraq, you must have a real dialogue with the resistance here, the men who carry arms," said Mr Mahmoud.

"Lots of my friends are not voting for this reason. They say that this is the most important thing for the country. They tell me that they think what is happening is just an American show to impress the international community. I am going to vote, but I think they should have delayed the election for three months so all communities in Iraq could take part."

Mr Atemini does not sympathise with this viewpoint.

"It is a pity if the Sunnis do not vote," he said. "We want to see Shias and Sunnis working together to build this country. But it is their decision, and they cannot complain afterwards. Ayatollah Sistani has said it is our duty to vote, and that is what we are going to do."

The situation now is an ironic reversal of January 1924, when it was the Shia clerics who issued fatwas banning Shias from taking part in an election under a previous British occupation.

The Sunnis did vote, and consolidated their ascendancy in Iraq, which lasted until the fall of Saddam.

Mr Atemini, 39, is a sheikh of the Tameem tribe, which is spread across much of eastern and central Iraq. He was arrested by Saddam Hussein's regime during the intifada in 1991 which swept through the Shia south after the first Gulf War. The Americans, having incited the rebellion, failed to help, and bloody retribution followed from Baghdad.

He came out of prison after a year to find that his brother Daoud had been executed and his land north of Basra seized. Now Mr Atemini and his family share a house with others in Basra while he attempts, so far unsuccessfully, to retrieve his property.

Through the days of torture at the Mukhabarat prison in Baghdad, he says, he taught himself to believe that one should not hope for too much. If things ended up all right, it would be a bonus.

For the Sunni Mr Mahmoud, the sense that this is not an election which includes all Iraqis is worrying, though it will not shake his determination to go to the polls. While it might be true that Kurds and Shias will vote, the abstention of most of the Sunnis will permanently destabilise the country in his view.

"It is like making a table with only three legs," he said. "It will never stand up straight."