Saturday, January 31, 2009

Bush's Last Success

Say what you will about the presidency of George W. Bush, the war on terror, the invasion of Iraq, or anything else...

This is truly amazing. The fact that Iraq, a country that suffered under one of history's most brutal dictators, just voted in (what seem to be) free, fair, and safe democratic elections is a legacy of which President Bush should be most proud. And for which he deserves far more credit than he has been given.
The New York Times


February 1, 2009

Under Tight Security, Elections Are Calm in Iraq

BAGHDAD — Iraqis voted on Saturday for local representatives, on an almost violence-free election day aimed at creating provincial councils that more closely represent Iraq’s ethnic, sectarian and tribal balance. By nightfall, there were no confirmed deaths, and children played soccer on closed-off streets in a generally joyous atmosphere.

Security was extraordinary. Driving was banned in most of the country to prevent suicide bombers from attacking any of the more than 6,000 polling centers and security checkpoints, often spaced just yards apart. The tight security, coupled with confusion over where voters should cast their ballots, appeared to have reduced turnout in many districts across the country. Senior members of several political parties were complaining publicly even before the polls closed.

Nationwide turnout varied: some provinces hovered around 60 percent, with Basra, a Shiite-dominated region in the south, still lower at about 50 percent. Others, including the northern province of Nineveh, which is strained by political tensions and violence between Arabs and Kurds, had 75 percent participation, according to local election officials. Contentious feelings from the campaign spilled over into election day, when opposing party leaders made many complaints about their rivals to American and international observers who visited polling sites.

Turnout was also high in Anbar Province, an overwhelmingly Sunni area where residents largely boycotted the 2005 national elections because of threats by insurgents and opposition to the American-led invasion. Sunnis’ participation now is considered critical to restoring balance to regional politics and perhaps undercutting a reason for violence.

“I just voted and I’m very happy,” Mukhalad Waleed, 35, said in the city of Ramadi, in Anbar. “We could not do the same thing the last time because of the insurgency.”

Part way through the day, the government lifted the vehicle ban in some areas to allow voters to travel to polling stations farther afield. It also extended the voting period by an hour, until 6 p.m.

Results are not expected for several days, with politicians anxiously waiting to find out how many councils will change hands, and if widespread dissatisfaction voiced at religious parties will translate into fewer seats for them.

More than 14,000 candidates are competing for 440 seats in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. The seats are for provincial councils that control municipal budgets and have the power to hire and fire people, giving successful candidates a great deal of power and influence in a nation with high unemployment. There was no voting in the semiautonomous Kurdish region, or in the divided city of Kirkuk.

In Qahtaniya, a village southwest of Sinjar in Nineveh Province that was the site in 2007 of the single worst truck bombing during the war, with as many as 500 people killed, the voting was orderly and even cheerful. Khodar Khudaida Rashu, the administrator of the Qahtaniya subdistrict, predicted that turnout would exceed 90 percent in most places.

The voting was the largest electoral exercise to be held since the wave of violence peaked in 2006 to 2007, and conditions were considerably more peaceful this time.

As Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki voted in Baghdad’s Green Zone, now under Iraqi control but still heavily fortified, he said: “I am very happy today because all the indications and information indicate a big turnout in the voting centers. This is a victory for all Iraqis.”

In one of the few reported episodes of violence, two people in Baghdad’s Sadr City were shot and wounded by Iraqi security forces as they tried to enter a polling center carrying cameras and recorders, Iraqi officials and witnesses said.

One witness said the two men quarreled with soldiers guarding the voting station, demanding to be allowed to go in through the rear entrance while the soldiers insisted that they go through the front door.

There was some violence in the period leading up to election day, with at least five candidates and three campaign workers killed during the campaign.

And in an episode apparently unrelated to the election, American forces searching for an Islamic extremist shot two Iraqi national policemen in Mosul in the early hours of Saturday. There were conflicting reports about the circumstances: the Americans said they were returning fire from a nearby building and found the two dead men there afterward. However, the Nineveh Provincial operations center said that the policemen were at a checkpoint when the Americans suddenly opened fire.

Over all, there seemed much eagerness to vote, but also confusion. Some voters showed up at the polling station closest to their home instead of the one they were assigned to because of the ban on driving. Others were turned away because their names did not appear on voter rolls.

Voter registration is organized around a national system for delivering food rations, a holdover from the Hussein era. Voters have to consult two lists to find out if they are registered at a given polling station. First, each person has to find the name of his or her food ration distributor. Then the voter must consult a much larger list of all of the families served by that distributor. If the voter’s name is missing, he or she cannot vote at that station.

Some frustrated Iraqis gave up, while others reported going from center to center before finding the one associated with their distributor.

Nasreen Yousif, a 54-year-old Christian, visited three polling stations in the New Baghdad district of the capital but could not find her name at any of them.

“Now I am going home,” she said. “Maybe there is a fourth school, but it is too far and I can’t walk any more.”

She added: “It is obviously a mess. If it is not a mess, where is my name?”

The Iraqi government and election officials blamed voters for the confusion.

Qassim al-Aboudi, the chief officer of the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission, said, “We repeated many times before the election that some of the voters might have to vote at remote polling stations because they didn’t update their voter registrations when they changed their addresses.” He said election officials had given people 45 days to update their information.

Even when people could vote, the ballots were often confusing. Some Iraqis stuck to voting for relatives or powerful politicians. One Basra police officer, Haidar Khalaf, 27, said he had chosen the local candidate on the slate of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. “I just voted for Abdul Hussein,” Mr. Khalaf said. “I only know his first names. I was just told to vote for him.”

The vote on Saturday, in addition to deciding how local governments are run, is also seen as an important indicator for national elections that are to be held within a year and decide the shape of the central government.

One of the most powerful Shiite blocs nationally, the Sadrist movement led by the cleric Moktada al-Sadr, is not contesting these provincial polls. It is, however, backing two other parties.

The Sunni parties are expected to make a better showing, especially in the west and north, where they boycotted the last round of polls at the height of sectarian violence in 2005.

In the mostly Shiite south, the main rivalry will be between two Islamist parties: the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, whose Iranian-trained militia is now a mainstay of the Iraqi security forces, and Mr. Maliki’s Dawa Party.

Secular parties are hoping that they will be able to capitalize on a protest vote against religious parties amid widespread criticism of their failure to provide jobs, services and utilities since 2005.

In addition to the widespread confusion, many complaints were lodged about the Kurdistan Democratic Party. In at least two instances, supporters were accused of handing out slips bearing the party’s ballot number inside the polling station, a violation of election rules; observers complained the practice was widespread.

In Nineveh, carefully negotiated agreements dictated where the Kurdish militias, or pesh merga, would be stationed around the polls, along with the local and national Iraqi police and the army. And still officers and soldiers entered the polling sites with weapons seemingly at will, another violation of the rules.

“It’s not fair,” said Wahid Mundu Hamu, a member of the Yazidi Movement for Reform and Progress. “We had hoped for the best, but that’s what I feel.” He then expressed fear that his people, a small Kurdish minority with its own religion and culture, would be overwhelmed by the larger Sunni and Kurdish parties vying for control in the region. “The Yazidis have been oppressed for so long,” he said. “And you’ll see that more and more.”

Reporting was contributed by Sam Dagher from Basra; Timothy Williams and Ian Fisher from Baghdad; Steven Lee Myers from Qahtaniya; and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Baghdad, Basra, Ramadi, Baquba and Mosul.

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