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Security Concerns in Iraq Continue in Lead-Up to Elections

December 15, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Anthony Shadid, welcome. Today of course, was the deadline for candidates to register for the Jan. 30 elections.

What do the registrations, the way it all panned out, tell you about the political lay of the land as this campaign really gets under way?

ANTHONY SHADID: Well, I think you’re seeing three coalitions that are going to command the most attention right now. The first coalition is the one that was– I guess “inspired” would be the right word to use– by Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, who’s the… one of the most influential religious leaders in Iraq.

He has one list that’s put forward four candidates. There will be another list supported by the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, and then a third list by the Kurdish parties, two of the most powerful Kurdish parties in northern Iraq.

I think those three lists are going to be the ones that gain the most attention, though notably what you had today is some degree of Sunni participation now.

Now, while the influential groups among Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority have called for a boycott, though you do have Adnan Pachachi, a longtime Sunni politician, entering the election with his list as well as the Iraqi Islamic party, which has a lot of strength in Mosul, a conservative traditional party, but it’s also put forward, I think, 270 candidates to participate in the election as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Does that signal to you that the Sunnis are going to participate?

ANTHONY SHADID: Well, there is going to be some Sunni involvement in the election. In other words, there will be some lists that will be composed of Sunni candidates.

I think the key question here is whether you have Sunni participation in the election itself. In other words, will people in Fallujah, say, or Samarra or Tikrit or Mosul, will they actually go to the polls? And the way things are right now, it’s hard to say.

It’s hard to see a lot of people going to the polls. I mean, there’s a lot of fear out there. You have insurgent leaders being very clear in their threats of attacking polling stations, attacking candidates that are campaigning as well as people who go to cast their votes.

That fear is hard to overstate in some of those villages and towns there, and unless the security improves pretty dramatically, it’s hard to imagine that you are going to have a high degree of participation in those areas.

MARGARET WARNER: Back to the violence, there was that attack today in Karbala and a top aide to al-Sistani was wounded. Who is believed to be behind that attack and how does it fit into the pattern of the violence lately?

ANTHONY SHADID: You have so much here it is hard to pinpoint who is behind it at any one point. You can see all kinds of possible scenarios here.

It could be an inter-Shiite battle. It could be people aligned with Zarqawi, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who in the past has threatened to try to attack Shiites targets in hopes of igniting sectarian conflict here.

From what we’re hearing in Karbala is people are accusing Sunni militants of carrying out this attack, but, the representative in Karbala obviously had his own enemies or competitors among the Shiite community as well.

I think when people heard news of this attack, which was ten people were killed, it happened right next to one of the most sacred shrines for Shiites on the first day of the actual beginning of the campaign, I think a lot of people were worried that this is the beginning of what a lot of people here fear will be pretty relentless violence in the lead-up to the election on Jan. 30.

MARGARET WARNER: You just returned, Anthony, to Iraq last month, as I understand it, after being away for about five months. How does the security situation compare now with when you left?

ANTHONY SHADID: It’s worse. There’s no question about that. Baghdad’s a pretty grim place right now. I do have to point out that it is better than it was a month ago.

There aren’t the level of kidnappings and the level of attacks going in on Baghdad that you saw probably before the attack on Fallujah by the U.S. Military.

Whether that’s just a lull in what we’ve seen as a pretty methodical escalation in violence since the occupation began, you know, that question is tough to answer. But there is a lot of fear, in fact, and I think there’s a lot of frustration also.

When you talk to people, I don’t think the threat is sensed as much from the car bombings or the fighting that occasionally erupts in the city, but rather from just the lack of services, which has colored sentiment since the very beginning of the occupation.

Gas lines stretch for a few miles sometimes at some gas stations, people waiting overnight to fill their cars up. There’s a lack of kerosene right now.

There’s still pretty persistent blackouts and although winter in Baghdad is pretty mild, it still gets cold at night, and it’s definitely created some hardship in people trying to stay warm.

So I think when you talk about a city that is relatively grim, that is pretty grim and disenchanted, I think it’s more a reflection of those lack of infrastructure or basic services than the specter of violence, which still does lurk very vividly at times here.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, you reported today and there have been more stories about it that proceedings, some kind of legal proceedings, are going to begin against some top lieutenants of Saddam Hussein as early as next week.

What are those proceedings going to be like and how do you explain the timing?

ANTHONY SHADID: Well, the proceedings themselves are probably going to be more akin to an investigative hearing.

In other words, the formal trial isn’t expected to begin next week; that might wait until January. Just, you know, a quick sampling of sentiments in the streets.

There were people suggesting that these trials are being maybe pushed ahead a little faster than they would be otherwise because of the election, and that Allawi’s government hopes to gain some instant profile, I guess, among the electorate for putting these people accused of war crimes before a court.

It’s a question, though, and how much support he would actually get from the trials themselves. There is sure to be an element of theater there, I think. And we’ve already seen suggestions of that. Eight of the detainees have gone on a hunger strike, although that’s just one day.

But they could very well use the forum, playing to an Arab audience that has, I think, a little different experience with Saddam’s government than Iraqis did themselves. So it’s hard to predict exactly how those trials will play out.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Anthony Shadid, thanks so much.

ANTHONY SHADID: My pleasure.