January 27, 2005

DISTINCTIVE DEMOCRATS:

Women make pitch to Iraqi voters: In Najaf, women and tribal leaders work the streets, promising progress and getting out the vote. (Scott Peterson, 1/27/05, CS Monitor)

In a vote where one third of the candidates on 111 lists for the new 275-seat parliament are required to be women, these are voices unaccustomed to a political airing in Iraq.

"Actually, our families are afraid," says Radha. "My family is calling me every other hour to see how I'm doing. But we believe that our city and province are safe, and I'm moving from place to place alone. I'm not afraid."

But in much of the south, candidates have been able to cast off the violent threats that are clouding the election in Baghdad and Sunni-dominated areas. They are mixing their new political freedom with tribal tradition, and calling the outcome democracy.

Najaf Gov. Adnan al-Zurfi says every step has been taken to prevent attacks, including deploying 15,000 police and Iraqi forces in the city and around 236 polling stations. In the past week, those units have been conducting night raids to arrest known troublemakers.

"Some people don't want to live in this new country, and participate in democracy, human rights and freedom," says Mr. Zurfi. "Even those people will find out later that they are making a big mistake by threatening people, killing people."

"It's not about Sunni and Shiite, it's about politics and power," adds Zurfi, noting that Najaf officials under Saddam Hussein did not come from Najaf, but from the regime strongholds of Fallujah and Ramadi. "Now they have very limited power. They are fighting back, to take the same opportunity they had before. This is not the [path] of the new Iraq."

Instead, that path leads through the women candidates - who, unlike many running for office, are willing to be photographed and named - and through the palm-forested village of Sulayiyah, a 45-minute drive away. There, tribal chiefs show just as much enthusiasm for the process, albeit in a more traditional way.

Subgroups of the large Bani Hassan tribe marched into the compound of the newly anointed tribal chief on Tuesday, waving red and white tribal flags and chanting poetry of love, devotion, and wise leadership.

"We don't need just any politician, but one who will look after our farms, our people and our faith," one man shouted above the din, spraying spittle in his enthusiasm to show his support.

The mustachioed Sheikh Muthanna al-Hatem al-Hassan, who is running for parliament, promised to look after the tribe from a seat of power in Baghdad.

"What's important to us is Iraq, and what we need is one Iraq only," says Sheikh Muthanna, with the practiced, good-news air of a politician. "This is the first step, and like every first step, this one will be hard. Sure, there will be some trouble, but I'm sure, in the end everything will be better."

While Muthanna has a built-in support base of hundreds of thousands of Bani Hassan tribesmen, the women candidates in Najaf have to sell potential voters on their plans and integrity.


Posted by Orrin Judd at January 27, 2005 7:36 AM
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