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Iraq: The Real Election


And so, on Election Day, we walked. We had stopped at the bureau after the long drive across Baghdad—watched a leader of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq tell the Green Zone television cameras, “We plead with Iraqi citizens to take the risk, if they still consider it a risk, to perform their duty…”—and then, with the car useless, we set out on foot. We came out slowly, hesitantly into the mid-morning, a couple of security people walking ahead, passed through a checkpoint or two, then advanced down the middle of the nearly deserted main avenue. It was odd, after the armored cars and flak jackets and helmets, to be walking on the street: I felt unnaturally light, but also vulnerable, as if I had escaped from captivity and soon would be recaptured. The shift in point of view—from behind the walls of the barricaded hotel or the armored car to the strangely deserted streets—was jarring.

Three weeks after Election Day, in a newspaper report of a series of attacks on February 19, an image caught my eye:

In a fifth suicide attack, a suicide bomber rode a bicycle into a tent full of mourners at a funeral in southwest Baghdad, killing at least three people and wounding 55. Afterward, from a high building nearby, it could be seen that parts of human bodies below had been gathered together in piles.7

What struck me about this was not the macabre innovation (the use of a bicycle on the Shiite holiday of Ashura, when cars would be suspect); nor the peculiar dimness of the bomber, who, unlike his four somewhat abler colleagues, managed to strike the wrong target. (“He was an idiot,” a housewife wounded in the attack told a reporter. “It was a Sunni funeral, not a Shiite one.”) It was rather the point of view, which offers the reader a picture of the aftermath “from a high building nearby” from which one can discern “parts of human bodies below…gathered together in piles.” The image is striking, grotesque; but the point of view is lofty, aerial—distant.

Increasingly during the past year the newspaper reader and especially the television viewer has been looking at the great complicated tableau of occupied Iraq through a highly constricted lens, as if trying to examine an enormous history painting by squinting through a straw. For more than a year insurgents have targeted foreigners for assassination and especially for kidnapping—at last count, 189 “foreign nationals” had been kidnapped in Iraq, and thirty-three of them had been killed.8 What began as acts of political terror, complete with televised pleas on the part of the victim and in a few cases televised beheadings, quickly devolved into a cash business, in which criminal gangs, spotting a foreigner, seize him or her as a “target of opportunity” and market their prize to insurgent groups, who televise pictures of their acquisition and can earn, when they like, a substantial amount of cash in exchange for release. (“You must realize,” a Jordanian security expert told me in Amman, “that as a foreigner the moment you enter Iraq now, you are transformed from human being into commodity—a commodity worth half a million to a million dollars.”)

As suicide bombers and kidnappers created the new concrete city, they have driven reporters off the streets, away from the restaurants and shops, away from “ordinary Iraqis,” forcing them to sheath themselves in flak jackets and helmets, move in armored cars, and finally take refuge behind blast walls and barbed wire and armed guards in fortress-like hotels. Television reporters, politically the most important journalists on the ground—for they supply information, and above all images, to by far the largest number of people—are in practical terms the most vulnerable; their large “footprint”—the cameras and other equipment they carry, the crews they bring to carry it—makes them most conspicuous, and thus most restricted.

The correspondent you watch signing off his nightly report from the war zone with his name, network, and dateline “Baghdad” is usually speaking from the grounds or the roof of a fully guarded, barricaded hotel—a virtual high-rise bunker—and may not have ventured out of that hotel all day, having spent his time telephoning, reading the wires, and scrutinizing footage from Iraqi “stringers” who have been out on the street. When he does leave the hotel it will be in an armored car, surrounded by armed security guards, and very likely the destination will be a news conference or briefing or arranged interview in the vast American-ruled bunker known as “the Green Zone.” Sorties beyond Baghdad, or even to “hot” neighborhoods within the capital, can usually be undertaken only by “embedding” with American troops. It is a bizarre, dispiriting way to work, this practice of “hotel journalism,”9 producing not only a highly constrained picture of the country and its politics but, on the part of the journalist, constant fear, anxiety, and ultimately intense frustration. “I am getting out of here, getting out soon,” one network correspondent told me. When I asked why—for American foreign correspondents Iraq is, after all, the most important story going—he shrugged: “It’s no longer honest work.”

All of this made Election Day, thanks to the massive security presence on the street, a day of liberation for the foreign press. Journalists were set free. We walked, and looked, flinching now and again at the sound of mortars; and pretty soon—by now it was mid-morning—we began to see people, first one or two here and there, and eventually a group of three blue-shirted policemen walking abreast, all holding up purple fingers. They were jolly, laughing, giddy in the near-deserted street. Above the din of a couple of Apache helicopters passing overhead, they gladly told us their votes: one for Iyad Allawi, the present interim prime minister (whose face could be seen staring out from posters on many of the walls and concrete barriers around us, vowing “Strong Leadership, A Safe Country”); one for a list sympathetic to Muqtada al-Sadr, the young Shiite rebel (who, officially, was boycotting the vote), and one for List 169, the great Shiite coalition gathered together under the auspices of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (whose face, though he supposedly favored no particular list, was similarly ubiquitous on the 169 posters).

A few hundred yards down the street we came upon a barrier manned by a handful of Iraqi policemen and plainclothes security men. A cop wearing a ski mask gave me my seventh or eighth body search of the day, checked our credentials, wrote something down, took our cell phones, and finally, after some low-voiced discussion among the police, waved us by the concrete barrier. We walked down a short path, turned into a small courtyard, and were startled to see revealed…The Spectacle.

Filling the few hundred or so square yards of the courtyard of this small neighborhood school were perhaps a couple of hundred Iraqis—old men in threadbare suits, women in traditional abeyas, young men in tracksuits and sweatshirts—gathered together in five or six lines, talking in low voices, flinching at the occasional explosion, looking about somewhat self-consciously, but all waiting patiently to vote. I hesitated a moment. After all the Election Day images of mass carnage that had filled our heads during the last week, conveyed in rumors and threats and grim questions at news conferences, this gathering of people—the sheer public vulnerability of them—seemed shocking. We plunged in among them.

Vox populi, or, in journalese, vox pops: man-on-the-street interviews: in today’s Iraq, a rare, almost unheard- of pleasure. Such journalistic toe-dippings are generally attempts, among other things, to find “the great quote”—the person who manages to articulate, in his or her own way, the broader narrative, the plotline already determined. Such exercises are thus simultaneously a matter of evidence gathering and of analytic confirmation. On this day we wanted answers to questions which had to do, at bottom, with why these Iraqis had risked their lives to come out to vote: our questions, that is, fit in with the central narrative about the war, and especially about why America had fought it, what had brought America to Iraq in the first place. Before us, after months of explosions and suicide bombings and dead soldiers and civilians, stood people who might seem the perfect symbols of liberation, who embodied the war’s purpose in a single image: Iraqis waiting to express their voices in an exercise of democratic will. We needed now the image to speak.

For the most part, though, they didn’t seem to want to cooperate. Why are you here, I asked a young man wearing a Ray’s Pool Hall shirt. “Why?” He looked surprised. “To vote.” But why, why did you come? “We are a normal people, an independent people. We want to be like other people, to vote. We need security, stability—that’s all.” He volunteered nothing about Saddam, about the war, the Americans, the occupation; when asked he seemed reluctant, like many of his neighbors in line, to discuss them.

A young woman, wearing a beautiful sea-green abeya, asked by a colleague about Saddam, grew annoyed. “No, this is not about Saddam. Forget Saddam. I am an engineer and I have no job. Neither does my husband.” Then, a bit exasperated, “We want a normal country.”

I looked behind her: on the low roof of the school building, a policeman stood watching with his AK-47. We asked an old man, wearing a checked kaffiyeh and a white beard, what he expected from the elections. He too seemed reluctant. “I already talked to the press,” he grumbled. But what did he hope to accomplish by voting? He thought a moment. “Now we’ll have good officials. Now we’ll talk to them and they’ll talk to us. Before they just hit you, beat you, punished you.” He was eighty-three, had lived, he said, under eight governments. “The monarchy was the best. There was stability then.”

Among these mostly middle-class people I heard this thought expressed again and again: the desperate need for security, for stability—for normalcy. Several, when I asked why they had come out to vote, looked at me with varying degrees of surprise or condescension and said, “So we will have a government. Look around, we need a government.” Some, when I asked whom they’d voted for, refused, smiling: this is democracy—secret ballot.

Others, when asked several times, offered the names of candidates—but only the famous ones, those leaders of the main lists, for of course the “security situation”—the bombing, the kidnappings, the beheadings—had prevented any public campaign; there had been no rallies, no door-to-door canvassing for votes, no chance even to learn who was running; indeed, many of the candidate lists were, in effect, secret. Only the names of the party leaders were widely known, Iyad Allawi, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, Ibrahim Jaafari, and a few others, all of them among the exiles returning from London and Washington and Tehran, who had dominated the American-appointed governing bodies since the fall of Saddam.

  1. 7

    See Dexter Filkins, “On Bus, Bicycle and Foot, Suicide Bombers Aim at a Shiite Holy Day,” The New York Times, February 20, 2005.

  2. 8

    See Iraq Index, p. 12. The real wave of kidnappings of foreign nationals began in April 2004, when forty-three were seized.

  3. 9

    See especially Robert Fisk, “Curbs Leaving Big Holes in Reporting about Iraq,” The Independent, January 17, 2005.

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