Basra, 27 January – Upon arrival in Basra, I realise that my guide book is out of date. It says “Basra is the Venice of the Orient”, praising the city’s first-class hotels and modern spirit. Basra may once have been the “Venice of the Orient”, but today’s Basra is a grim place. The promenade along the Shatt al-Arab River is as empty as the whitewashed pedestal that used to feature still images of Saddam Hussein’s favourite generals during his reign. The asphalt paving the city’s streets is cracked and crumbling, with debris gathering in the potholes. Poverty oozes from the houses, with ragged children playing between piles of rubbish as British military patrols drive by. Once the curfew starts at 8 p.m., the only sounds on the street are gunshots and police sirens.
The only source of colour in Iraq’s second-largest city comes from the plethora of election campaign posters. 111 political parties, electoral lists and alliances are up for parliamentary election this coming Sunday, and every available space in Basra is plastered with calls to get out and vote or portraits of the candidates. The face on electoral list 169, the “Ayatollah list”, is that of religious leader Ayatollah Al-Sistani, whose platform is unsurprisingly theocratic. Electoral list 285 represents the political party of transitional Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who was appointed to the position by the occupying US force. Promoting his strongman image in front of the local police precinct, the poster only shows Allawi’s eyes peering ahead in cold, strained determination. This image coincides with his campaign promise and slogan: “Strong leadership and security for the nation”. Even the notice board at Basra’s university is covered in election campaign posters and flyers with slogans ranging from “Your vote is Iraq’s future” to “Stomp your enemy’s power into dust”. So many election posters compete for the attention of those passing by that one student’s “Lost” notice for his treasured English-Arabic dictionary is covered up completely.
This is electioneering in Iraq. Under the supervision of the occupying American and British forces, 14 million Iraqis are poised to vote for a National Assembly and 18 regional parliaments in Iraq’s first free elections since the fall of Saddam Hussein in March of 2003. The new National Assembly will select the President and the Prime Minister. It is also responsible for writing a new national constitution. If all goes well, the constitution will be finished and put before the Iraqi people for a national referendum by the end of the year. If they approve it, new elections will be held and nothing else can stand in the way of Iraq’s democratic future. At least not in theory.
In practical terms, this allegedly free election may go down as the most unusual and extraordinary election in the history of democracy. Initiated by the US occupying force and welcomed by Iraq’s Kurds and Shiites, it is nevertheless opposed by nationalistic Sunni rebels, former Saddam cronies and Sunni internationalists with ties to al-Qaeda. The rebels are busy threatening anyone who dares to vote, shooting electoral inspectors and tossing bombs. A full four days before voting is set to begin, all of the polling stations are already barricaded for protection. The fear is that for the “Sunni Triangle” as well as Basra, Sunday and the election will bring an orgy of violence. US President George Bush has called for “the courageous Iraqis” to vote, adding that they should “… fight the terrorists. You have no alternative for the future”.
Yet putting aside Bush and courage for the moment, many actual candidates in this election are keeping their names a secret. The complete roster of names were only released by the electoral commission three days prior to the election, and none of the candidates campaigned openly in Basra. The campaign here is only evident in the posters and television adverts. Despite all this, in the words of one man: “Everything begins with the first step, including democracy. And this election is the right step.”
Professor Achmed Schihab’s office is not far away from the notice board with the election ballots. The professor is busy correcting an exam, covering it in red notes. The only prediction he can make for the upcoming election is that it is difficult to make predictions about it. He comments further: “Everything said about the election, both negative and positive, is relative. The simple fact is that the election and the new government won’t resolve all of the problems. That will take time.”
According to the international commentators on TV and in the newspaper columns, Iraq’s power struggle is between three distinct communities: the Kurds in the north, the Sunnis in the centre and in the west of the country and the Shiites in the south. The short take on the situation contends that Shiites and Kurds were oppressed under Saddam. Together they make up 80 percent of Iraq’s population. Saddam gave preferential treatment to his own Sunni community, and now the Sunni fear that they will become Iraq’s oppressed minority has driven them to violence. They see the Shiites as Iran’s “Trojan horse”, set on nothing less than the establishment of a theocracy in Iraq based on the Iranian system.
While it is indeed true that Kurds and Shiites make up the nation’s majority, as Professor Schihab points out, “not every Shiite is pro-Iranian. I’m a Shiite. But I don’t see an ayatollah regime as a solution”.
Basra’s occupying British force doesn’t have the solution either. While British Consul General Simon Collis has indeed invited candidates to his office in one of Saddam’s former palaces on the river promenade for what is being referred to as a “political kaffeeklatsch”, the only politicians invited are already known to be in favour of the elections. So, over tea, coffee and pastries, the 20 invited candidates and tribal leaders all seem to be reading from roughly the same script, repeatedly asserting that “… regardless of whether they are Shiite or Sunni, all Iraqis want to vote”.
Those political figures opposing the elections pass up the Consul General’s coffee break. Sheik Yusuf al-Hassan, a cleric at Basra’s most important Sunni mosque, comments saying, “at Friday prayers I preach that elections held under occupation are illegitimate. We Sunnis will not recognise this election”. Cloaked in a gold-grey robe, the sheik sits in his office full of theological literature. All his assembled wisdom has brought him to the conclusion that “Islam is a religion of peace. But anyone supporting the occupying force is our enemy. The power struggle in Iraq is not between different ethnic or religious groups. It is an issue of whether one accepts the presence of the Americans or not”.
Perhaps it is true that thinking simply in terms of ethnic or religious categories doesn’t reflect the reality on the ground in Iraq. But there is evidence enough to draw conclusions different from those of Sunni Sheik al-Hassan. One journalist from Basra predicts an unanticipated scenario emerging from Iraq’s coming election, with “two different camps: one with a conservative, religious base and the other with a liberal, secular, pro-American viewpoint”. The journalist suggests that in secret, many Iraqis, both Sunnis and Shiites, approve of the current head of state Allawi, despite the fact that he is a puppet of the US. The same journalist has no qualms about predicting the outcome of the election, asserting that “… Allawi guarantees us at least a bare minimum of security and he gets along with the Americans. Regardless of whether the new government is dominated by Shiites or Sunnis, it will be pro-American. And the new Prime Minister will be Allawi”.
“Everything begins with the first step, including democracy. And this election is the right step” – says a British soldier in Basra.