Iraq Prepares for Jan. 30th Elections
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MARGARET WARNER: Ed Wong, welcome. Just five days before the election, how visible a campaign is there? Is there anything approaching what we would call a campaign atmosphere in Iraq?
EDWARD WONG: If you’re observant and you’re driving around, say, Baghdad, especially certain neighborhoods in the center of it or east of the Tigris, then it becomes apparent that there is an election taking place.
Just today, for example, I was driving through this area called Risafa, which is basically the epicenter of Baghdad. And there, along the commercial street, you see all kinds of banners promoting different political parties, parties led by, for example, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi or the Shiite list that was put together under the orders of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
So you see a lot of these… a lot of the names are fairly familiar. Politicians are holding sort of group meetings inside places with certain constituencies, say, with groups of students, with groups of… with women’s groups.
In the South, you’ll find some sheiks meeting with politicians in traditional meeting halls called Mudif. And we’ve heard stories about them meeting there and having sort of more traditional-style meetings where, basically, they talk about… they try and get the support of the sheik and the support of the tribes in that local area.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, there’s also been, we read, a lot of pre-election maneuvering going on politically. In fact, you wrote a story today about the Sunni leaders, who are boycotting, but are at the same time saying they want a role after the election. Tell us about that.
EDWARD WONG: They’ve been very anti-occupation from the beginning and they called for boycotted elections. But I interviewed one of their senior members in his mosque on Saturday, and he said that they wanted to separate their view towards the elections and their view towards the constitution.
And they wanted to take part or have input in the writing of the constitution. I think a lot of these groups that are very anti- election at the moment, they see that there is… the elections are only the beginning of a very long and drawn-out political process and that the constitution is the major part of that.
After all, the assembly’s main job, the assembly that will be elected on Jan. 30, its main job is to write a constitution. And so, if the Sunni leader still retains street cred with their anti-American constituency by calling for a boycott, but they can still play the other side of the fence, too, if they can get a foothold in writing the constitution even after the election.
MARGARET WARNER: At the same time, the Shiite leaders, at least of this leading slate, are also using this pre-election time to try to reassure the other factions about their intentions.
EDWARD WONG: That’s right. It’s not just the reassurance of the other factions, too. The Shiites are trying to reassure the world at large, especially the Americans, that they won’t set up any Iranian- style theocracy in Iraq after the elections.
There’s been a lot of talk of whether having a government dominated by Shiites, especially one that is backed by Grand Ayatollah Sistani, will lean towards the Iranian model of government. And what the Shiites are really going out of their way to do right now is to say that that’s not the type of government they want.
And by doing this, they’re trying to bring some of the Sunnis into the fold, perhaps, and also maybe get more votes on Jan. 30 because maybe some of the more secular-leaning voters might then be more supportive of the Shiite list, whereas before they might be more doubtful of it.
MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile, of course, the insurgents I know have kept up their attacks, and Zarqawi, one of the insurgent leaders, declared war on this principle of democracy earlier this week. What do officials there now think will be the impact of all of that? What kind of turnout are they willing to predict?
EDWARD WONG: I don’t think anyone is predicting a certain percentage right now. It will vary geographically how many people turn out. I think Baghdad itself is going to be a crucible for the elections because Baghdad has a very mixed population.
You’ve got everyone living here, and it’s also one of the most violent areas in the country. And this is where a lot of people think the insurgents will strike. Now on the 30th of January, Election Day itself, there will be no road traffic except for military vehicles and a few other vehicles.
But basically the government did that to try and curb any chance of car bombs. So there’s a lot of talk that some of the greatest violence might come the day right before the elections or the two or three days before that. And we’re just waiting to watch and see what unfolds.
MARGARET WARNER: Ed Wong of the New York Times thanks so much.
EDWARD WONG: Thanks a lot.