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In Iraqi Towns, Electoral Experiment Finds Some Success

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 16, 2004; Page A01

CHEBAYISH, Iraq -- The banner outside declared the occasion: the first free elections in this hardscrabble southern town, battered by President Saddam Hussein and neglected in the disarray that followed. Campaign posters of men in turbans, suits and street clothes crowded for space along the wall of the polling station, peering at the gathering crowds. Inside was Tobin Bradley, a 29-year-old American trying to pull off the vote and, in the process, possibly reshape Iraq's transition from occupation.

"Ask them if they read and write," Bradley called out in Arabic to volunteers and staff. He positioned police to keep order. "One officer goes here," he said. "One goes there." To a handful of candidates gathered at the door, he lifted up a ballot box, painted in white. "You can see the boxes are empty." He caught his breath, rolled up his sleeves, then called out, "Yalla, let's go."

"We'll see how it works out," Bradley said, as voters surged through the doors. "It's always figure-it-out-as-we-go."

With a knack for improvisation and little help from Baghdad, Bradley, the political adviser for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Nasiriyah, has carried out what may stand as one of the most ambitious democratic experiments in Iraq's history, a project that goes to the heart of the debate about how Iraq's next government should be chosen. In the province of Dhi Qar, about 230 miles southeast of Baghdad and a backwater even by Iraq's standards, residents voting as families will have elected city councils in 16 of the 20 biggest cities by next month. Bradley will have organized 11, more than half of them this month.

At every turn, the elections have set precedents, some of them unanticipated. Voters have typically elected professionals rather than tribal or religious leaders, although the process has energized Islamic parties. Activists have gone door to door to organize women, who turned out in their largest numbers this past week in some of Iraq's most conservative towns. Most important is the way residents qualify to cast ballots -- cards issued by Hussein's government to distribute monthly rations.

In the debate over the U.S.-administered transfer of power to an Iraqi government, those cards have emerged as a crux of the dispute. U.S. authorities have resisted elections for choosing the next government, fearing that -- in the absence of up-to-date voter rolls -- logistical challenges and the potential for fraud could not be addressed before June 30, the date of the scheduled handover. But Iraq's most influential religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has suggested that ration cards could substitute for voter rolls.

While making clear they are not endorsing the idea for all of Iraq, U.S. and British officials say the ration-card system works strikingly well in this province, Iraq's fourth-largest. "In principle, we here are quite in favor of it, and people like it," said John Bourne, the British coordinator in the province. "The question is, will it work on a larger scale here, and the next question is, will it work elsewhere?"

So far, Bourne has not advocated widening the voting experiment to the entire province.

"If we jump into it now, there would be a big splash," he said.

Bradley, too, stopped short of endorsing the system for the rest of the country. But in Dhi Qar province, which is overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim, it has proved the surest way to ensure the councils that run the towns are viewed as legitimate -- unlike many U.S.-appointed councils elsewhere in Iraq.

"I think we need to trust Iraqis a little bit," Bradley said. "If it works here, what does that say? It's worked in one city, it's worked in 11 cities, it could work in more. But we're taking it one city at a time."

$600 Elections

With about a month of planning -- at a cost of about $600 each -- Bradley organized back-to-back elections this past week in Chebayish and Fuhud, towns of dirt roads, stagnant puddles and cinder-block huts that border the resurrected marshes Hussein sought to drain in the 1990s. Banners in Fuhud that called voting "a moral, religious and national duty" competed with Hussein-era slogans still painted on walls of the one-story girls' school. "Down with the Jews," one intoned.

Hundreds lined up outside the school, carrying the sometimes smudged, creased or torn ration cards issued to their families, plus one other form of identification. In this election, each family was allowed two votes -- one for a man, one for a woman. Ration cards were marked with two stamps, and voters then sat at battered school desks, choosing between five and 10 names from a list of 44 candidates.

"One at a time, one at a time, organization is beautiful," shouted one of the judges running the voting, Kamil Rashad Fleih.

Naim Aboud, wearing the checkered headdress of tribal Iraqis, showed up only with his ration card, asking for a ballot.

"You have to bring identification," Fleih said.

"It's far away," said an exasperated Aboud, throwing up his arms.

"You must," Fleih answered. "That's the law today."

Another man brought his wife's identification, trying to cast her vote for Fuhud's 10-member council.

"She has the children at home," he protested to the judges.

Bradley interrupted. "You go home, you stay with the children, and she comes," he said in Arabic.

For a civilian administration often criticized for its isolation and disproportionate presence in Baghdad, the Coalition Provisional Authority in Dhi Qar has demonstrated a flexibility and improvisation more commonly exhibited by the U.S. military in Iraq.

In each election, Bradley has started with a preparation committee of unaffiliated residents. Beginning a month before the vote, they come up with conditions for candidates: minimum age, no Baath Party affiliation and an often contentious education requirement. Judges from outside run the voting, and lately, nongovernmental organizations have played a growing role.

The hard-to-forge ration cards, a slip of computer-generated paper, identify the head of the household. While some have contended the former government abused the system, Bradley said he believes 95 percent of families in the province have ration cards. Voters with the cards then prove they belong to the family. In the early elections, Iraq's patriarchal society meant only men voted, so Bradley changed the rules to give two votes to each family -- a red stamp for women, a blue stamp for men.

"It's not a perfect system," he acknowledged.

The Female Vote

Women's participation was a particular problem. A total of three women voted in the two elections before the rule change. In the election after the revision, in Batha, 62 women -- from a total of 1,200 -- cast ballots. Then female activists from Nasiriyah, the provincial capital, got involved, going door to door with leaflets and broadcasting a message from the mosque loudspeaker after the noon prayers.

"To all respected women of the town of Fuhud, to every housewife, teacher and doctor, to the educated and uneducated, we would like to tell you that your presence at the elections center is a duty," called out 26-year-old Rasha Muhsin Aboudi.

Within an hour, dozens of women showed up at the polling station, some carrying barefoot children. More than half were completely veiled, their faces hidden. The judges cast a cursory, futile glance at their identification cards.

"I think we'll be a little lax on that one," Bradley said.

The activists from Nasiriyah read out the candidates' names to the illiterate women, marking off their choices for them. Aboudi, herself veiled, hunched over the ballot with 31-year-old Samira Geitan, who chose only two names.

"You have to choose at least five," Aboudi said, shaking her head. "Fewer than that won't work."

"I don't know any other names," Geitan complained. "I should know the person I choose."

At that, her friends crowded around and helped her select three more names.

In all, 145 women voted in Fuhud, out of a total of 1,221 votes cast. The next day in Chebayish, 231 women voted, out of a total of 1,264 votes.

For many of the women -- and men, as well -- the act of voting was perceived less as a conscious exercise of newfound rights and more as a means to better conditions in one of Iraq's most deprived regions. Complaints ran rife -- most residents lacked jobs, tomatoes cost four times their prewar price, rice and sugar were missing from rations and three times more expensive in the market.

"We're tired, and we're weary, very weary," Wabria Thahid, 54, the mother of three and draped in a black abaya, said after voting. "We need help from God and from the people who will lead us. We'll choose the people who can understand us."

In Chebayish, in the region where the 1991 Shiite uprising began, the complaints verged on exasperation, even anger.

"There's freedom, but there's pressure on the people. There's no one caring for the people," said Dakhil Rihan, a 52-year-old dressed in a tribal headdress. Others crowded around, shouting their grievances.

"This place is worn out, really worn out -- not 99 percent, but 100 percent," said Ahmed Hussein, a day laborer.

"We hear they're exporting oil. Where's the revenue?" asked Rihan.

"Freedom without a leader is meaningless," interjected Ahmed Rizaq, 28, a policeman.

Bradley said he views that frustration as the greatest threat to the experiment underway in the province. Through elections -- even Dhi Qar's abbreviated sort -- he has guaranteed legitimacy, he said, and turnout runs between 30 percent and 40 percent.

What he lacks, he said, is credibility.

"It's been nine, 10 months, with no results, really," Bradley said. "We don't want people losing faith in the democratic process. There's no point in having elections if there are no tangible results after the elections."

Idealism and Frustration

In town after town, Bradley brings an earnestness tinged with authority that allows him to navigate innumerable hassles. A graduate of Georgetown University, with fluency in Arabic and French, Bradley is a Foreign Service officer who served at the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan, from 1999 to 2001. He was brought from the U.S. mission to NATO in Brussels and arrived in Nasiriyah in September. His father was a city manager, and he says his job now is "dealing with the same problems, but in a different place."

He is righteous but frustrated -- the two qualities that perhaps best define the American experience in Iraq. His view of the country he is trying to change is grim, and he said he never expected to find "such a broken society."

"There's no national pride, it seems like to me. People want to take," he said in an interview at his office, guarded by Italian troops. "Everybody's thinking about themselves. That's what Saddam encouraged, that's what he rewarded."

But to him, the stakes are higher. He recalled working in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research for four nights after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He was angry and, with a bent of idealism, he was determined to bring about change, he said.

"We have an opportunity to start something good here. Whatever you think of the war, I have the opportunity to build a stable democracy here in Iraq," he said. "It doesn't matter whether you were for it or against it. The fact of the matter is we're here."

At times, his frustrations have overshadowed his idealism. The election Wednesday in Fuhud almost didn't come off. It had been scheduled for Feb. 6, but when he arrived at 7:40 a.m. that day, the only other person there was a man pushing a cart.

"I said, 'What about the elections?' He said, 'They've been broken.' "

The night before, as Bradley was helping count votes in another election, the preparation committee in Fuhud had canceled the vote. The committee had struggled with political parties over candidates suspected of ties to the Baath Party or security forces. As the fight dragged on, the committee feared the wrath of the parties if they went one way, tribal vendettas if they went the other.

Bradley convened a meeting that day. It lasted three hours, replete with shouting matches. Some were with candidates. Others were between secular residents and representatives of the clergy. Some protested that a 36-year-old candidate with a genetic condition that gave him the appearance of an 8-year-old couldn't run for office. "That's discrimination," Bradley said. To the puzzled crowd, he went on to cite the example of actor Gary Coleman's candidacy in the California gubernatorial election.

After a break for noon prayers and round after round of Pepsis and tea, the elections were rescheduled.

"It was almost like, what was the problem, there was no problem," Bradley said.

The next day, the preparation committee resigned anyway. The chairman said he feared for the lives of his six children. Bradley had to scramble to get the assistance of political parties, then looked for help from nongovernmental organizations.

There was none of that discord on Wednesday, as the elections went on without a hitch. The mood was festive, and workers with the nongovernmental organizations weaved through the voters, bantering with men voting in their first free elections. "If you have a question, ask me," called out Hassan Ajil, 32. "Don't be embarrassed."

He moved the voters along. "Less than five names and more than 10 won't do," he said.

"What about six or seven?" one voter called out. "That's fine," Ajil answered.

As some voters left, they made the point that they were doing what Sistani, the grand ayatollah, had urged. Others were encouraged that if elections could take place in a town like Fuhud, they could take place anywhere. An undercurrent in the conversations was that, given the success in Dhi Qar, the U.S. administration had less of an excuse to refuse to allow a vote soon.

"If the Americans reject the elections, we'll reject them," Faraj Alaywi, a 26-year-old nurse, said as a gusty wind blew through the town. "The Iraqi people want elections, 200 percent. The world says elections aren't possible, but we want them."

One reservation cited by opponents of quick elections is the fear that religious extremists would emerge victorious. But in many of the elections in Dhi Qar, Bradley said, teachers, doctors, lawyers and others have won. In the town of Rifai, professionals won seven of 10 races. In Batha, only two representatives of Islamic parties won seats on the 10-member council.

In the elections this past week, though, there were signs that the parties were beginning to mobilize. In Chebayish, members of the two strongest Islamic parties -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa party -- passed out lists of candidates. Some were handwritten, others typed. Many voters brought the lists inside and obediently marked off the choices.

In Fuhud, the candidates sat patiently as the vote was tallied. The count began at 3:30 p.m. and wrapped up three hours later, as a few fluorescent lights cast a pale glow over the desks. The top vote-getter was Zaki Hanoun, a member of the Supreme Council who fled Iraq in 1999 and returned after the war. Two of the next three most popular candidates had ties to the Dawa party.

In a dark courtyard of the school, the candidates put a hand on a green Koran and took the oath, one by one. "I swear to Almighty God to do my work, to serve my country and to implement the law." Afterward, supporters kissed winners on both cheeks.

"This is the first step toward democracy," Hanoun said. "It's a wonderful example for the other provinces in Iraq.


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