Iraqis vote in first election since defeating Daesh

May 12, 2018


An Iraqi Kurdish woman shows her ink-stained index finger at a polling station in Irbil. — AFP


BAGHDAD/FALLUJA, Iraq — Iraqis voted in the first election on Saturday since defeating Daesh, but few people expect its new leaders to stabilize a country beset by conflicts, economic hardship and corruption since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Aside from geopolitics that have deepened sectarian divisions, Iraq faces an array of challenges after a three-year war against Daesh which cost the country about $100 billion.

Much of the biggest northern city of Mosul was reduced to rubble. Security is still threatened by sectarian tensions, which erupted into a 2006-2007 civil war at the height of a 2003-2011 US occupation.

The election’s victors will have to contend with the fallout from US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran, a move that raised fears among Iraqis that their country will be a theater of conflict between Washington and Tehran.

The three main ethnic and religious groups — the majority Shiite Arabs and minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds — have been at odds for decades, and sectarian divisions remain as deep as ever even though they joined forces to fight Daesh.

“I will participate but I will mark an ‘X’ on my ballot. There is no security, no jobs, no services. Candidates are just looking to line up their pockets, not to help people,” said Jamal Mowasawi, a 61-year-old butcher.

The three main candidates for prime minister, all Shiites, are incumbent Haider Al-Abadi, his predecessor Nouri Al-Maliki and Shiite militia commander Hadi Al-Amiri. All need the support of Iran, which has economic and military sway in Iraq as the primary Shiite power in the region.

Abadi is considered by analysts to be marginally ahead, but victory is far from certain for the man who raised hopes that he could forge unity when he came to office.

In office he reached out to minority Sunnis but alienated Kurds after crushing their bid for independence. He improved his standing with the victory against Daesh, which had occupied a third of Iraq.

But Abadi lacks charisma and has failed to improve the economy and tackle corruption. He also cannot rely solely on votes from his community as the Shi’ite voter base is unusually split this year. Instead, he is looking to draw support from other groups.

Even if Abadi’s Victory Alliance list wins the most seats, he still has to negotiate a coalition government, which must be formed within 90 days of the election.

Amiri, 63, spent more than two decades fighting Saddam from exile in Iran and leads the Badr Organization, the backbone of the volunteer forces that fought Daesh. Victory for Amiri would be a win for Iran.

But many Iraqis are disillusioned with war heroes and politicians who have failed to restore state institutions and provide badly needed health and education services.

“There is no trust between the people and the governing class,” said Hussein Fadel, a 42-year-old supermarket cashier in the capital. “All sides are terrible. I will not vote.”

Some people expressed frustrations at technical problems which kept them from voting in Falluja, which used to support Saddam, was devastated by battles between US troops and insurgents during the occupation and is now far from recovering from the war against Daesh militants.

“I have to vote it’s very important. My voice is going to waste. Are they telling me no election? Shall I just go home?,” asked laborer Khalid Abd, 65.

Maliki was sidelined, having been in office for eight years, but he is now trying to make a comeback. He is again posing as Iraq’s Shiite champion, and has proposed doing away with the unofficial power-sharing model under which all main parties have cabinet representatives.

Maliki, who pushed for US troop withdrawals, and Amiri, who speaks fluent Farsi and spent years in exile in Iran during Saddam’s time, are both seen as closer to Tehran than Abadi.

The post of prime minister has been reserved for a Shiite, the speaker of parliament is a Sunni, and the ceremonial presidency has gone to a Kurd — all three chosen by parliament.

More than 7,000 candidates in 18 provinces, or governorates, are running this year for 329 parliamentary seats. More than 24 million of Iraq’s 37 million people are eligible to vote in the election, the fourth since Saddam’s fall.

In Kirkuk, the main oil city disputed by Iraq’s Kurds and the Baghdad government, 90-year-old Najm Al-Azzawi has witnessed Iraq’s upheaval over many years: Saddam’s military adventures and the crippling international sanctions that followed, the US occupation, sectarian bloodshed and Daesh’s reign of terror. But he has not lost hope. — Reuters

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