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21 January 2005

On 30 January many Iraqis voted in their first direct multiparty elections since 1953. They did not vote for a president or prime minister but a National Assembly of 275 members. The National Assembly will in turn select a “presidency committee”, whose task it will be to choose a prime minister.

The National Assembly will also draft a permanent constitution, which will be voted on in a referendum by December 2005.

These elections are just the initial stage of a long process, and could even be the first of three to be held this year.

Iraq election links:

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What follows are the views of nineteen Iraqis from all over the world on their election. A range of perspectives, including journalist Ayub Nuri who opposes elections while Coalition forces are still in Iraq; activist Huda Jawad who feels that voting is a way of defining her rights as an Iraqi citizen; student Majed Jarrar who doesn’t think the elections will make any difference; poet Fadhil Assultani who has been waiting for this moment for twenty-six years.

This feature is part of openDemocracy’s ongoing coverage of the Iraq crisis through the eyes of Iraqis themselves. To read more see our earlier debates Iraqi Voices, Iraq: war or not? , and Iraq – the war & after.




Isam al-Khafaji, Director of Iraq Revenue Watch

I think the elections should be held back.

I am concerned that Iraqi Sunnis are being excluded from the vote as the Sunni provinces are the ones worst affected by violence and Sunni parties are boycotting the election.

Whether the past government was dominated by Sunnis or not, it is very dangerous to launch a path into democracy by telling the Arab Sunnis that the new Iraq will treat you as a block, as a minority that was oppressing the rest of Iraqis, because most of them will say we had nothing to do with that regime.

I think things have gone so far now that we won’t have a legitimate government from these elections and all that will happen is that Iraqi society will become even more polarised.

You have to open dialogue with the ordinary Sunni Iraqis, giving them the message that that we are all equal citizens now.

The view that the elections must go ahead as planned is an arrogant one. When Mr Bush and Mr Blair come to Baghdad to say “we” will hold the elections, they are telling the Iraqis that “we” will decide what “we” think is good for you. They are saying our troops are in a mess and that is the major issue for the election.

My biggest fear is that ordinary Sunnis will be pushed towards the extremists if they are sidelined in the elections. This is the worst thing that can happen and that’s why I’m hoping it can be delayed.

But it’s not only the Sunni areas that are in danger. With the reign of militias, even the non-Sunni regions are not seeing and will not see fair and free campaigning. Evidence of this is that not a single participating group has presented the full names of all its candidates for fear of their assassination.

The danger of civil war is very real. But the trigger may well be disputes between Kurdish and Turcoman groups centring in Kirkuk and who would have the right to vote there rather than Sunni/Shia differences.

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Hayder Al-Fekaiki, Iraqi Volunteer and Iraqi Sport

I will certainly be taking part in the Iraqi elections. It is my and every Iraqi’s unalienable right to be part of what could be a highly blemished but nevertheless positive step for a vast number of Iraqis to express their will – something that we have been denied for decades.

Democracy and its institutions are never created overnight but develop in a context of socio-economic stability, traditions of tolerance and a nation’s sense of self and sovereignty. All of these are unachievable under conditions of occupation, international terror and armed resistance.

Also on openDemocracy about the Iraqi election:

Regardless of its makeup, the next Iraqi government will unfortunately remain largely ineffectual and impotent – buried under the weight of the American political single-mindedness and military might on the one hand and the unrelenting, increasingly well-financed and organised threat of violence and terror on the other.

Despite all this, I remain realistically hopeful that with a few more such “test runs” in democratic process, Iraqis can and will sow the seeds to secure a relatively successful democratic tradition in future Iraq.

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Usama Shabibi, Pharmacist

As an Iraqi who fled the tyranny of Saddam Hussein’s regime thirty years ago and now living in England, I have my reservations in participating in the 30 January elections.

Besides the fact that Iraq, being under occupation, is not a sovereign country, my main objection is due to the lack of security. The Oxford dictionary defines “security” as safety and freedom from danger.

How can you have free elections when a country is under martial law, shops closed, people’s movements are sharply restricted, and with kidnapping and murder occurring on a daily basis? How can you have a fair and democratic election when hundreds of thousands of second generation Iraqis abroad are allowed to vote while millions of Iraqis inside will not venture to go to the polling stations?

I fully understand and sympathise with those inside Iraq who look forward to this month’s vote and also fully condemn any attempts to sabotage their freedom to elect. I strongly oppose any violence against any Iraqi civilians from all sides in Iraq, whether occupying forces or extremist groups. However, I think a fully democratic election is far fetched now under the present situation in Iraq.

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Tahrir Abdul Samad Numan, Iraqi exile and peace activist

In principle, I am for holding elections in Iraq. In fact I wanted them to be held before the “handover”. (What handover?). This dubious process could do long term damage to the evolution of real democracy in Iraq. But what will these elections mean to the ordinary Iraqi?

Allawi has already given us the good news: “it is going to get worse after the elections”! Elections are supposed to be a mechanism for empowering the Iraqis to make choices. Are there any real choices for the Iraqis at present?

Allawi’s government failed to provide Iraqis with the security necessary to hold the elections in accordance with the interim constitution. The main opponents of Allawi’s list are already serving in the Interim Government. What are their achievements?

Since the American invasion women generally do not leave their home unless they have to. Will they risk their lives, standing in a queue outside a polling station?

With only 10% of Fallujah refugees having returned to their devastated city and a significant number of Iraqis not having the opportunity to register let alone vote, I think it is inappropriate for Iraqi exiles to take part.

Will it be free and fair? I very much doubt it. Iraq has been under the rule of martial law for the last two months. Muqtada al-Sadr has complained about arrests (without warrants) of his supporters and that four of them died under torture in Iraqi police custody.

Will the elections produce legitimacy? That also is doubtful. If a significant number of Iraqis are excluded from this process, then the results will not be seen as legitimate.

Why was Fallujah destroyed so near to the time of the elections? What has it actually achieved apart from the antagonism of most Sunnis? Was this deliberate?

I find it interesting that the US never leaned on its allies, the Kurdish leadership, to face the electorate in order to renew their long expired mandate.

The Kurdish leadership held elections (which were not observed by independent international monitors) in 1992. Then they started to kill each other!

The Palestinians had eight hundred independent monitors for their recent elections. How many will there be in Iraq? About thirty, I think!

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Munir Chalabi, Activist

I have a lot of reservations about the elections, but a political process is needed to end the violence in Iraq. The majority of Iraqis want an end to the violence and terrorism; they see the elections as their only way out.

I don’t expect these problems to be resolved on 30 January, but there will be some kind of turning point, though of course it will depend on what actually happens at the elections.

If the Americans and their men, like Iyad Allawi, fix the vote, then the violence will just get worse – that’s for definite. And it will also encourage groups, like the Shias – who have mostly restrained from violence – to take part.

Because Allawi has the police and army in his arms, he will try his best to fix here and there, so he will have some votes. But I do not believe there will be a single majority to any one list. There will be a mixture of two or three lists that do well: the Kurdish list, a list for Sistani (or supporters of Sistani), and if the Islamic Party decides to participate, they will take a lot of votes – but from the Sunnis.

The elections have to take place, and they mustn’t be delayed because that will only continue the violence.

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Ahmed Shames, Iraqi Prospect Organisation

I’m a presiding officer at one of the stations here at the exhibition hall in Wembley, London where registration for out-of-country voting is taking place. In three days we have registered around 4,000 Iraqis.

I disagree that the elections should be postponed. There is never a wrong time to start a democratic process. Here at Wembley we are seeing really extraordinary examples of Iraqis coming to vote. I’ve registered an 85 year-old woman and her 65 year-old daughter; two brothers who came all the way from Dublin, and they’re coming again on election day to cast their vote; also in one day ten disabled Iraqi people in wheelchairs, all from different parts of London.

By having a chance to vote, these people really feel they are taking things into their own hands. The Iraqi people know what is best for them, and they have a chance now to choose their own government and participate: they are determined to have their say. Most of these people are voting for the first time and they don’t want to miss the chance, even the tiniest opportunity. We have registered people from many different backgrounds. I can tell you also that there is no definite boycott by any specific ethnicity.

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Ayub Nuri, Journalist

I am not going to vote. I don’t think this is a fair election as Iraq is still an occupied country, by the Americans and in the south, the British. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, nothing in this country has been legitimate.

Right from the beginning, when the Americans created the Iraqi Governing Council, which became the current Iraqi interim government with Iyad Allawi as prime minister, the Iraqi people were kept unaware of the process of political development in their own country. At the end of the day, the Americans and the Iraqi opposition leaders were behind the curtains, killing the Iraqi people.

What Iraq really needs right now is not elections, but basic things like security and water. I have travelled throughout Iraq, from the south to the north and have talked to many different people, and they’re all saying the same thing. They don’t care if Iraq is ruled by Muslims or Christians, Shias or Sunnis for whatever period of time. All they want is security so they can get on with their daily lives. Nobody feels safe in Iraq, and elections will not make any change to their actual daily life.

The Americans are saying to the world “this is an election for an Iraqi government and then we are going to leave”, but that isn’t enough. The insurgents, the Sunni militants, are not going to stop attacking the government if they accuse it of being American appointed. The Americans must make sure that there is very good police and security. They have to start working on these issues before they do anything else.

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Luay Abdulilah, Writer

Iraq is heading towards a great historical event. It could be the most significant one since the early 1920s when the new state was founded. For the first time since 1953 (when the results were annulled because a dozen candidates belonging to opposition parties were elected!), Iraq will hold its first free election. The majority of Iraqis will have a chance to say what they want, though for security purposes and to prevent assassination of candidates, voters will elect “lists” that represent single parties or coalitions, rather than individuals representing different parties.

The effect of this election on the Middle East will be gigantic, bearing in mind that no free elections have ever been conducted (with the exception of Israel and Iran before the conservatives took control) in this whole area.

Perhaps this is why we can see some dubious alliances between some past archenemies, such as the Iranian conservatives and the Wahabi members of al-Qaida, to fight an unholy war against the potential of any basic democracy that might emerge from the crucible Iraq has been locked in for the last 18 months.

All of Iraq’s neighbours have worries about the success of democracy in Iraq. Even Jordan, which has shown interest in helping Iraq to recover, is still hosting some senior figures from the former Iraqi regime.

Historically, any change in Iraq had sweeping effects on the political establishment in Syria. When I travelled from Baghdad to Damascus last November I strongly felt the difference between a liberal Iraq and a dated Stalin-style Damascus.

No matter what the outcome of the election Iran will be the loser. Once Iraq becomes stable and prosperous, the religious authority will return from the Iranian holy city of Qum to Najaf. This could lead to the end of the religious hegemony the conservative Iranians have been exerting to justify their authoritarian rule against any opposition.

There are also enemies of democracy inside Iraq. A small but well organized front to obstruct the election by pushing towards a civil war. By committing the most horrendous crimes the groups, engaged in these destructive acts, want to say to 95% of the population who want the election: You will see nothing of that. You will have a wasteland by 30 January: a lot of killings of innocent people, of destroying the essential infrastructure and of continuous intimidation to all groups that believe in democracy and pluralism: Your life will be hell.

Iraqis have to live with the consequences of the blunders the Bush administration has committed since the fall of Baghdad (dissolving the traditional Iraqi army of half a million soldiers for example). But the sacrifices they are enduring to make the election a success is the price of freedom they have to pay.

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Fadhil Assultani, poet

Before I left Iraq twenty-six years ago, I was asked in an interview about my dream, and I replied immediately: “I am dreaming of a ballot box”. At the time this simple dream felt completely surreal.

Now, for the first time, we have the right to choose our representatives, and participate in forming the future of our country. For us Iraqis this election is the most decisive moment in our modern history.

But it has come at a high price: hundreds of mass graves; thousands disappeared, tortured and executed; millions forced to exile; and three wars in just one generation.

Who doesn’t want these elections to happen? The same people who caused these atrocities, in a new alliance with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaida supporters in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi, who is responsible for some of the most barbaric massacres against innocent people, has declared war on the Iraqi people: “candidates in the election are seeking to become demi-gods while those who vote for them are infidels”.

But despite such threats and violence, it will not be al-Zarqawi or the remnants of Saddam’s regime who will make the future of Iraq.

Who will win the election? The Iraqi people will win.

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Firas Al-Atraqchi, journalist

As an Iraqi, I enjoy the right to protest this farcical vote as much as the right to participate in it.

Never before has a nation been forced to hold elections while it stands under occupation; while occupying forces lay waste to towns and villages; while enemies external and internal cause havoc within its common streets.

Sorry, but any comparison to Germany or Japan is infantile and insulting. Germany did not have entire villages surrounded, and there was no nationwide resistance against the occupying presence. Furthermore, Germany had already set in motion social and economic democratic institutions before the rise of the National Socialists (Nazis) in the early 1920s. Germany was already primed.

As for Japan, the feeling there was that most people were ready to cooperate with the Americans. These are but the most basic differences between these countries and Iraq.

We are told that 14 of the 18 governorates will enjoy full voting capabilities. That’s for domestic US consumption. What you are not told is that three of the largest governorates Baghdad, Anbar and Ninevah are in dire security status, with the latter two not holding elections at all. Partial national voting is being passed off as “better than not voting at all”.

What kind of elections are we to expect when the candidates are unknown. Who are they and where do they come from? What abilities and skills do they have to serve me – an Iraqi citizen – to ensure a better future for myself and my children?

No names, only fancy lists with fancy slogans.

What are the campaign objectives? What are the plans to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure? No answer.

Why is there such an emphasis to hold elections at this juncture? Why such resolve to deny calls for a six-month delay?

How can national elections be held before a national reconciliation effort?

How can we expect fair elections under the auspices of an interim government that, according to Human Rights Watch, is employing identical torture, restraint and interrogation tactics as the regime before it? This is a government – incapable of even a rodent’s squeak of protestation over Abu Ghraib and the more recent incident involving British troops – that cares about the welfare of its people, believes in due process, and protecting the rights of those incarcerated?

Thanks, but no thanks.

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Huda Jawad, Forward Thinking

I registered to vote last week, and I’m actually going to be helping out here in London. I’ll be observing the voting and possibly getting involved in the counting as well.

I am a Shia and I left Iraq at the age of 2. My family have been directly and indirectly affected by Saddam’s regime. I have worked and lived in opposition to Saddam’s policies as long as I can remember. Voting for me is very important and I take it seriously. I relish the chance of being able to vote, but having said that, I have no illusions about the process being absolutely perfect. By all means it is a very initial and small step.

By not voting I would be dishonouring the memory of all those people who have fought so hard to oppose Saddam’s regime, the British and the international forces, but above all the Iraqis who have been victims of Saddam’s regime for the past few decades. The only way I can take part in building Iraq, from the outside, is to vote and define my right as an Iraqi citizen.

I completely understand and sympathise with those people who have concerns about the election and aren’t participating. But I do feel that the current situation in Iraq is not conducive to anything else but voting. We need to start from somewhere. However imperfect the elections are, at least we can say that we’ve begun something that wasn’t there before.

It is unfortunate that Iraq is occupied by the Coalition forces, but under Saddam we were occupied by our very own people. We didn’t have 10% of the rights we exercise now, albeit in a very insecure environment. I don’t agree that the only way to get Iraq out of its current situation is to abstain from voting, in fact it’s the very opposite of that.

Iraq at the moment is in a very difficult scenario to predict. There are so many different players, interests, groups, and all have a stake in what is going on at the moment, whether in delaying the elections, sabotaging them, taking part, or even ensuring that they actually take place.

The elections will mark a defining moment in Iraq’s history. But whether they will lead to great security and stability – that’s another matter. One would hope it will be the start of a real democratic future for Iraq, but I am sceptical as to how effective they’ll be in preventing further violence, especially amongst the Sunni insurgents. There’s no doubt it will be a struggle.

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Zaid Fahmi, Journalist

These elections are a great opportunity for us Iraqis. It will give us the chance to decide our destiny. I will definitely be voting. Elections took place in Palestine under Israeli occupation, and now they have a president and a government, so I don’t buy those people who say these elections aren’t legitimate. What we have now in Iraq is nothing. We don’t have any kind of representative, or council or real government that represents the people and takes decisions. Before he left, Paul Bremer said that elections should be held, and even though it is something that comes from the Americans, we must do it.

Most of the people here in Baghdad, the people in my neighbourhood, my colleagues, are frightened. But the people who will be voting have a great hope in the elections. And most of the people here think the elections should go ahead. Whatever will happen in the future can’t be worse than what’s happening here now. By not having elections we will be playing into the hands of the terrorists.

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Sami Ramadani, Academic

Iraq is being denied free and fair elections. The United States and British occupation governments have engineered a process for reproducing the US-appointed Iraqi interim government, to prolong the occupation and incite sectarian and ethnic conflicts.

Millions of Iraqis, under siege in many parts of their homeland, will be disenfranchised, while hundreds of thousands of second-generation Americans and Israelis could vote.

While boycotting this undemocratic exercise, I strongly condemn all forms of violence against Iraqis participating in it. As an exile, I am confident that the vast majority of Iraqis, at home and abroad, shall unite to end the US-led occupation and establish democracy, whatever their stance on participation.

I echo the opinions within Iraq stressing the impossibility of holding free and fair elections while under occupation, and being subjected to war crimes by the US-led forces. However, I support demands for minimal preconditions:

  1. setting a strict timetable for speedy withdrawal of all occupation forces
  2. ceasing all attacks, and confining all occupation forces to barracks until full withdrawal
  3. ending martial law and releasing all political prisoners
  4. establishing an independent election commission, led by Iraq’s senior serving and retired judges, and including all Iraq’s political forces. This could be assisted by anti-occupation figures such as Nelson Mandela and members of the United Nations general assembly

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Rifat Chaderji, Architect

People have said the elections shouldn’t happen because Iraq is occupied. For me, this is an irrelevant question. The important thing is that Iraq now has a chance to move towards modernity and be a part of the international community. America is the greatest international power, and we have to learn to live with her.

The legitimacy of the elections is a minor issue, the point is the Iraqis will cope (and have been coping) with the change that is happening. We will understand it and adjust to it.

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Majed Jarrar, Student

I have many fears about the elections. One of my concerns is that the whole thing is a sham. You can imagine a couple of Iraqis standing by the ballot boxes in the ‘green’ zone, happy faces and shaking hands with smiling US soldiers - courtesy of CNN

A lot of things here just don't make any sense: Shias are going to fight to the death to vote, and Sunnis are going fight to prevent it from happening. Starting a new government on this basis of destruction and corruption doesn’t sound too good.

Many people are boycotting the elections because of the security factor. Extremist groups are circulating threats saying that anyone who votes should ‘consider the consequences’.

Will this process really make a change to Iraq’s current situation? I don’t think so. If anything it will legitimise the US presence, most probably by a request from the elected government.

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Hassan Fatah, journalist

Anybody who has a right to vote, should do it. I’ve always maintained that ‘not voting’ is not a protest, you’re just not being counted that’s all. So if somebody was to ask me ‘should we vote?’ I’d say absolutely, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you believe in or support or the whole process as it is. Doing nothing is worse than doing something.

The elections will mark a turning point, but the danger is, in which direction? They might end up creating division rather than unity, but that’s the unfortunate reality. We’ll know over the next month or so what actually comes out of the elections.

I think Iraq is still in for a really rough ride. Just because we are now voting doesn’t mean the dynamic is going to change.

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Faiza Al-Araji, Blogger

The whole election process feels like a warped and deformed operation. The security condition is terrible; drinking water, electricity, cooking gas and fuel for cars are hard to come by. Daily life is horrible and tiring; the people are confused and depressed and have nearly lost the hope for getting a better life in the coming days and months.

So, what is the point of having elections now? Will it magically turn this miserable situation to a wonderful one? I am afraid that everything will stay as it is now, and that a solution is very far away.

But if I feel that my vote will bring progress for Iraq and Iraqis, yes, then, I will vote.

I know it’s not magic, and happiness and success won’t come overnight. But perhaps new and good leaders will come, who knows? We have to move and do something positive to get Iraq out of this dilemma.

There may be a chance to solve this dilemma if the United States agrees to withdraw troops within 2 to 3 years. The impact of this might decrease the violence, and moderate Iraqis might be encouraged to participate in the political process. And maybe the extremist will decrease their activities? I hope so, but I don‘t know.

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Dlawer Ala’aldeen, academic

The elections are a very exciting moment. I went down to London to register and it gave me a great feeling. At least it gives us a way of thinking that we’re laying a foundation for the future. In spite of all the difficulties and problems it has to be done. I’m very positive about it, but also realistic.

Iraq is occupied and may well remain so for some long time to come. It is impossible to wait until then. We cannot delay having official representation and elected leaders. It’s the elections that will end the occupation, not the other way round. They are not mutually exclusive.

I share a lot of the concerns that people have: this is not an ideal election. It’s hampered by violence and boycott. Large sections of the population won’t be able to vote. Even the lists of people or parties who present themselves as candidates have not had either the chance or the will to explain their manifesto or program; voters are going simply by names and reputations.

There will be a lot of violations and illegitimate voting. But this is inevitable given the vacuum power in Iraq, and the artificial and unnatural circumstances the Iraqi people are living in.

It is going to be a very stressful exercise, but the fact that elections are happening is what is making people excited.

I am realistic about this, I’m not living in a dream. No candidate or ‘list’ can come out 100% legitimately elected because the political process itself doesn’t yet have the foundation or legitimacy, but what is our alternative?

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