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Approaching elections, Iraq faces daily sectarian violence and deep division

April 29, 2014 at 6:32 PM EDT
Iraqis are preparing to go to the polls in the first national elections since American forces withdrew. However, as the government faces a resurgence of al-Qaida-linked groups, fears intensify that security forces are losing their grip on a key part of the country. Journalist Jane Arraf reports from Baghdad.
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GWEN IFILL: In Iraq, voters go to the polls tomorrow in the first national elections since American forces left. The government faces a resurgence of al-Qaida-linked groups, and there are fears security forces have lost control of a key part of the country.

As sectarian violence intensifies, some believe that Iraq, where thousands of American lives were lost and billions of taxpayer dollars spent, is slipping back to the brink of civil war.

Journalist Jane Arraf filed this report from the — for the NewsHour from Baghdad.

JANE ARRAF: This was an election rally for the League of the Righteous and its political ring, the Truthful. Their leader, Qais al-Khazali, believed by the U.S. to have organized the killing of U.S. soldiers, now Iraq’s newest political player.

The militant Shia group’s latest fight has spilled over to Syria, where some of its young members have been killed fighting alongside Syrian regime forces. “If the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is the illness, then the Truthful are the cure,” said Khazali.

Moments after those words left his mouth, this attack happened, a car bomb in the parking lot of a stadium, followed by another car bomb and a suicide bomber. The al-Qaida offshoot he mentioned, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, took responsibility.

This isn’t the Iraq that the United States expected to leave behind. It’s not even an Iraq a lot of Iraqis recognize. In election after election, in almost a decade since people here first went to the polls, the country has become more and not less divided. And many fear it will become more dangerous.

Here in al-Anbar, Iraq’s biggest province bordering Syria and Jordan, few people will be able to go to the polls this week. In Fallujah, anti-government fighters are in the street. The Iraq government says this is its war on terrorism. It has surrounded Fallujah to drive out what it says is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, former offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq.

It has been using U.S. weapons and ammunition to launch strikes on the edge of the cities. But it isn’t that simple. Many Iraqis in the Sunni majority province say these aren’t terrorists; they’re rebels fighting against what they believe is an Iranian-controlled Iraqi government.

The conflict reflects a bigger political split in Iraq and the region. Sarhang Hamasaeed is a senior program officer for the Middle East with the U.S. Institute of Peace.

SARHANG HAMASAEED, United States Institute of Peace: The issue is entangled, the sectarianism and the divide of the Sunni and the Shia is entangled with competition, competing interests and priorities toward regional powers as well.

You have the Gulf states. You have Turkey. You have Iran. They have different interests in Iraq and they’re backing different political actors there. So that has not helped the Iraqis to come together and bridge the Sunni and Shia divide. So the first thing that needs to happen is to agree on what is the problem, and this is where you can start a conversation. The future of Iraq rests very much on that conversation.

JANE ARRAF: But, preoccupied with winning, few Iraqi political leaders seem in the mood for conversation.

Ayad Allawi was Iraq’s first post-war leader installed by the United States as interim prime minister in 2004. Allawi and his secular Iraqiya party were the hope of mainstream Sunni Iraqis. His party in 2010 actually won more seats than Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but he joined Maliki’s coalition government.

Now he said he’s had enough. He says, after Parliament voted to limited terms for a prime minister, he won’t accept Maliki even if he wins.

AYAD ALLAWI, Former Iraq Prime Minister: We will against the political process. We will withdraw from the political process. And we will work against the political process peacefully.

Even if the United States were to come with the army again and bring 120,000, we won’t accept it.

JANE ARRAF: There is no danger of the U.S. sending in troops again. Three years ago, the United States had both tired of the war and worn out its welcome. All U.S. troops left in 2011, leaving Iraqi security forces struggling.

Maliki’s big worry and that of the U.S. is that Anbar won’t be contained, that the fighting just 40 miles from Baghdad will spill over into the capital and the fortified Green Zone, where the Iraq government and the U.S. Embassy are based.

Outside the Green Zone, Iraqis take their chances with almost daily attacks intensified during the campaign. There are more than 9,000 candidates vying for seats. Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who won the largest bloc in the last vote, has withdrawn from politics, but he still inspires support.

And in the symbolic heart of Iraq, the liberal cultural center on the Tunubi street, those trying to turn the tide of religious sentiment are out in force.

This street and the crowds are a sign of resiliency here. Seven years ago, a car bomb exploded near this spot. Dozens of people were killed, and it sent a message that anywhere could be a target. In Baghdad again, there are car bombs almost every day, but it doesn’t stop people from going out.

And when you ask them what the main campaign issues are, security is only one of them. Ahmed Jassim, a student, is urging people to vote for a civil state, one that is run by laws and not religion. He hasn’t voted before, but he was so impressed with one of the candidates, he decided to volunteer this time.

AHMED JASSIM, Student Activist (through interpreter): We believe in civil society, equality between men and women, and a government that’s not sectarian.

JANE ARRAF: His candidate, like many of the others campaigning on this day, are from a new version of the Communist Party. The Communists, who are secular, have lost support as Iraq becomes more religiously conservative, but they believe people are tired of religious divisions.

Fatin Abdul Illah Ahmed is an engineer who has run and lost twice before.

FATIN ABDUL ILLAH AHMED, Candidate (through interpreter): We hope that the Iraqi voters will choose correctly this time to change the existing wrongs, so we won’t lose all these billions of dollars that nobody saw. We hope for change and there should be change. Unfortunately, we don’t have the electoral cultural mentality. The majority of people are not fully aware of the idea of elections. We are still new to democracy.

JANE ARRAF: Ahmed Al Obeidi has sold books on the street for 25 years. He believes the most important issue is cutting corruption and putting people back to work. He hasn’t decided yet who to vote for. He thinks it will be either for Maliki’s State of Law coalition or for the Communists. AHMED AL OBEIDI, Bookseller (through interpreter): The economic issues are casting their shadows on the security issues in this country. The government needs to rethink economic projects to develop the country. They are parallel.

JANE ARRAF: On this street of culture and learning, you can see Iraq’s lost potential.

Haider is 8 years old. He lives in the neighborhood, but he and his brother Allawi, who is 7, don’t go to school. They sell chewing gum here instead. Their father is a laborer. Two of their sisters were killed in a bombing.

Haider tells me he would like to go to school, but his family doesn’t have the money for bribes really to obtain the government records needed to enroll him. It’s not a bright future for these boys. But Iraq is a country still reinventing itself one election at a time.