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Iraq Pre-Election Overview from Reporters in Iraq

January 28, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: We launch our coverage of the Iraqi election with two reports from independent television news correspondents. First an overview from Lindsey Hilsum,

LINDSEY HILSUM: Iraq’s border with Syria, guarded by the Americans, closed for the elections. Like all other land borders, international airports, even provincial boundaries. Extreme measures, but there is an extreme threat. The people of Baghdad have grown accustomed to danger.

The southern suburb of Doura has seen explosions near polling centers and police stations in the last few days. Today, the insurgents targeted al Nahda School, a polling station in the same area. In the city of Samarra to the north, they placed dynamite around a polling station and blew it up. Then, masked gunmen appeared on the street with a message for the few people who had dared to venture out in their presence.

MILITANT (Translated): We announce before God that we will kill anyone who participates in the elections. We will kill, we will kill, kill anyone who participates in elections today or tomorrow and on any day. God is greatest.

LINDSEY HILSUM: It is a ruthless campaign.

MAN: Your vote is your future.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The contrast with Basra couldn’t be greater. A local election official I met was boundless in his optimism.

RAUF ALWAN: It means the future for us. We want to live in a happy democratic life. This election will lead us to this result.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Inside the polling station, they were posting the information that voters need. The polling booths are assembled from cardboard kits. Several will be placed in each classroom so as many voters as possible can be processed at the same time, cutting down on queues. Some security measures here seem meager, to say the least.

At this polling station, they’re hoping that school benches will deter suicide bombers. But armed police guard the polling stations. And four and a half thousand British soldiers will be deployed in case the violence from the North is visited on Basra on Election Day.

JIM LEHRER: Next, from Mosul in the North, this report from Neil Connery.

NEIL CONNERY: Mosul feels like a ghost town. Its streets are all but deserted. All traffic has been banned over this election weekend as part of the security crackdown. We spent the day with American troops as they made their last minute checks on voting centers in Iraq’s third city.

SPOKESMAN: Take a look at your preparations. But if you could kind of explain them to me, I’d appreciate it.

NEIL CONNERY: But this is no normal election. The sound of nearby gunfire interrupts the inspection, a stark reminder of the dangers never far away.

SPOKESPERSON: What have we got?

NEIL CONNERY: Iraqi forces will be on the front line of security at polling stations on Sunday. They know their role is vital if the elections are to be a success.

LT. COL. THOMAS HESLIN: They’re not green soldiers. They’re battle-hardened. I’ve gone around, I’ve inspected them just like I would my own soldiers, looked at their plans, looked at their preparations, and it’s solid.

NEIL CONNERY: Any driver found breaking the traffic curfew is treated as suspicious. Suicide bombers have claimed a heavy toll here. But American and Iraqi forces believe they’ve done everything they can to make these elections safe.

JIM LEHRER: Now, a third on-the-ground look at how Iraqis feel before Sunday’s vote it’s from Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post in Baghdad. Jeffrey Brown spoke with him earlier this evening by telephone.

JEFFREY BROWN: Anthony, welcome. Give us some sense of Baghdad today if you would. What are people telling you as they look towards Sunday’s election?

ANTHONY SHADID: Right now you are seeing almost a tale of two cities in Baghdad. When you venture into Sunni neighborhoods or predominantly Sunni neighborhoods, the election isn’t really much of an issue to be honest. There aren’t that many campaign posters. Inside homes it is not a topic of conversation. You know people are reluctant to vote in those areas either for fear of intimidation, or they see this process as being engineered by the United States and they don’t want to be part of it.

You see a far different story in Shiite neighborhoods, places like Habbaniyah and even parts of Sadr City. There is quite a bit of enthusiasm and excitement about the vote. There is a sense that come Election Day, there is going to be a redress of historic wrongs of decades even centuries in which the Shia community has been repressed. This is the moment which they rectify it, this is the moment when they — achieve their rights or exercise their influence that reflects their numbers as a majority.

JEFFREY BROWN: So much of the focus in recent days has been on the violence. Do the Iraqis you talk to give a sense that they feel it will be safe to get into their cars or walk down the street to go to the polling places?

ANTHONY SHADID: You know, it’s almost — it’s virtually unanimous when you talk to people the sense that there is going to be violence on Election Day. Some people disagree to the degree to that violence. One person I was talking to in Karada was certain that there was going to be car bombings and, you know, people walking into the polling stations with suicide belts. It’s remarkable, you know, almost how prevalent that opinion is.

In some ways it’s kind of odd, the insurgents have achieved a victory in some sense in creating intimidation and having that almost universally subscribed to. Then again, you don’t see that intimidation as being entirely successful. I think there are swaths of the city that you will you see people staying inside their homes.

They’re not willing to take the risk to go out and vote. But I think you may be surprised when you see the turnout in places in predominantly Shiite neighborhoods where it is fashioned as a religious duty to vote. And I think that sense of religious duty is probably going to play stronger than the fear of violence on Election Day.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now earlier this week you were in a rural village in the South where you wrote it was suffused with talk of Sunday’s election. So there you found a bit more optimism and real enthusiasm.

ANTHONY SHADID: I think that’s right. Baghdad is one story. I mean you do see a different story in the far north in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq and definitely in southern Iraq where Shittes are the majority in Basra it’s a much more free-wheeling campaign; you see communists vying with Islamists; you see Islamists vying with the party of the Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi it’s a pretty even debate. In the countryside you see a similar story. Now the countryside is a liitle bit different from urban areas.

The countryside is obviously more conservative it’s traditional. And the authority of Grand Ayatollah al- Sistani carries a lot of weight there and Sistani is the country’s probably the most influential religious leader, Shiite religious leader. He has given his tacit endorsement to a list known as the United Iraqi Alliance. In the countryside that alliance carries a lot of weight. I talked to one voter in a small village. And he said, I salute Iyad Allwai, the prime minister, but I obey the Muja – and Muja is the name in Arabic for Sistani.

JEFFREY BROWN: Can you give us a feel to what this campaign is like for the average citizen on the ground. For example, where do they get information about the parties or slates?

ANTHONY SHADID: Well, it’s interesting. There really are moments of the surreal during the election, especially in Baghdad. The city is effectively locked down right now. There’s a curfew from 7:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. And today concrete barricades went up across the streets barbed wires cutting off ramps cutting off access to highways. Both American and Iraqis forces have a pretty heavy presence in the streets.

The city in some ways feels like it did in the days before the war, the atmosphere crackles with tension and anticipation of what is ahead. That said, some neighborhoods that seem they are going to turn out for the vote, there is still a lot of talk about the election. You don’t see the traditional campaign rallies; you don’t see candidates going door to door. You don’t see meetings taking place. It’s just too dangerous right now for that kind of stuff. It’s too risky to get out there and have too much of a public presence.

So that means more, you know, probably more superficial means are being used to get out the word. Campaign posters which, you know litter the streets, and also television. Television is playing a huge role in this campaign. On some of the Pan Arab stations and Iraqi stations you almost have the entire advertising segment given over to commercials for the parties or by non-governmental groups trying to get out the vote. From 7:00 to 10:00 at night, you know, virtually inundated with these ads. And I think in the end, these are proving to be the most effective means for the parties to try to get out their message.

JEFFREY BROWN: Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post in Baghdad, thanks very much.

ANTHONY SHADID: My pleasure.