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Middle east

Reporter’s Notebook: Iraq's fragile but determined democracy

Text by Robert PARSONS

Latest update : 2010-03-07

FRANCE 24’s special correspondent Robert Parsons is in Baghdad to cover the legislative elections and in his "reporter's notebook" he gives a unique insight into life in the Iraqi capital at this crucial juncture.

SUNDAY, March 7

I knew I was in Baghdad the moment I opened my eyes. It wasn’t the call to prayer that was the give away or the early morning sun streaming in through the window, but the dull crump of mortar shells falling on the city. One, two, three, in quick succession.

By midday local news was reporting that insurgents had carried out seventy attacks on Baghdad alone. Twenty four people had died.

And behind this ritual mayhem is the Islamic State of Iraq – an umbrella organisation for a group of Sunni fanatics that counts among its members the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq. They’ve spent the week before the elections promising death and mayhem on all who dare to cast a vote.

But for the jihadists this could be a last throw of the dice – and they know it. By preventing the Sunni community from voting, they hope to strip the elections and the government that emerges from it of legitimacy.

But Sunnis, it seems, are little impressed. They’ve felt marginalised from power since the last election in 2005, which most of them boycotted, and this time they want to make their presence felt.

All the main Sunni parties have urged them to get out and vote. And that is exactly what they’ve been doing today.

And not just the Sunnis of course. Once they’d shaken off early morning nerves, Sunnis, Shias and Christians alike gathered in increasing numbers at the polling stations – and, on a day when vehicles in Baghdad were banned, they had to come on foot.

I travelled across town to the Marj Ayoun polling station – over the road from an Armenian church in a moderately industrial quarter of Baghdad. The church notwithstanding, most of the voters in the district are lower middle-class Shiites. Not the fire and brimstone Shiites of Sadr City, where the radical ultra-religious Moqtadr al-Sadr has his base, but the sort of Shiites who want to keep religion and the state separate.

Few seem deterred by the morning’s violence. One elderly man, who voted for the incumbent president, Nuri al-Maliki, told me he wasn’t going to be scared by a few mortar shells after the terrors he had witnessed in the past few years.

He praised Maliki for his success in reducing the level of violence in Baghdad to ten percent of the levels seen in the ferocious months of 2007. It was a recurring theme among the people I met.

Democracy might be young here but it is taking hold. I spoke to a mother who had come to vote with her two daughters, all of them dressed to the nines for the occasion. Fatimah told me she had voted for Maliki but said who her daughters voted for was none of her business. She didn’t know and hadn’t asked. But she did admit that at home political argument was non-stop.

As the helicopters clattered overhead and the soldiers stood guard, you got a sense too of the Iraqis’ pride that this was really their election. The soldiers were all Iraqi and so were the helicopters. Not like the last general election in 2005 when the Americans took control because Iraq was still unable to protect its own people. This time there wasn’t an American in sight.

The Europeans were there though – as observers, among them France’s ex-Justice Minister Rachida Dati – clearly impressed by the sang-froid of the men, women and children who had turned out despite the threat of violence: “When you see families come out like this to vote with their children,’ she said, ‘it tells you that it takes a lot to scare them.”

She’s right – there’s a freshness and naivety about Iraqi democracy and a determination here to climb out of the depths into which this country has descended over these past few terrifying years. People believe they can bring change if only they’re allowed to elect the government they really want. But the shoots of democracy are also very fragile.

It’s often said here that Iraqis are opposed to sectarianism in public, but that they still tend to vote for their religious leaders in the privacy of the voting booth. Could this time be different? With strong secular coalitions contesting against the religious vote, there’s a chance that this time Iraqis may elect a non-sectarian government.

For Sunnis it has to be their best hope. If they vote along sectarian lines they are sure to be marginalised because at just one third of the population their numbers now are too few to threaten the Shiite hegemony. But if they can join forces with secular Shiites they may have a chance to get their voice heard.

And if it’s not heard then Iraq’s future will again look bleak indeed. If the Sunnis find that they have voted in vain, they may once more turn their back on the normalisation of their country. The only winners will be the insurgents.

There was enthusiasm on the streets of Baghdad today among people who have had little experience of determining their own fate. The novelty of it all is still fresh but the shoots of democracy here are nothing if not fragile.



Date created : 2010-03-07

  • 2010 Iraqi parliamentary elections

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