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
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
"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."
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
He moved the voters along. "Less than five names and more than 10 won't do," he
"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
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
"This is the first step toward democracy," Hanoun said. "It's a wonderful
example for the other provinces in Iraq.