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Anxious Iraqis Are Leaving Before Elections

Some Plan to Wait Out Vote Abroad; 'I Will Not Stay in Baghdad,' Commissioner Says

By Jackie Spinner and Naseer Nouri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 17, 2005; Page A13

BAGHDAD -- Abu Muhanned, a former Iraqi army officer, fished into his back pocket and pulled out a black leather wallet stuffed with $100 bills.

He had brought his wife and 12-year-old son to a busy travel agency in downtown Baghdad last week to buy airplane tickets to Egypt. Sudad, the owner of the agency, a petite woman whose desk was stacked with green Iraqi passports, asked Abu Muhanned when he wanted to leave.

"As soon as possible," he replied.

Sudad, who asked that her last name and the location of her agency not be disclosed, nodded knowingly. She had been hearing similar requests for weeks, as many members of Iraq's educated upper middle class flee the country in advance of the Jan. 30 elections.

Iraqi officials have said they were encouraged by the millions of people checking to make sure they were registered to vote. This is one of the few tangible, statistical signs that the populace is gearing up to participate.

An estimated 15 million Iraqis are eligible to vote in the elections, which will choose 18 provincial councils and a 275-member National Assembly. The assembly will appoint a central government and draft a constitution.

But despite the significance of the elections -- the first democratic vote in the country in nearly half a century -- a growing number of Iraqis are making plans to get as far from the voting booths as possible.

Abu Muhanned, for example, does not plan to stick around for Jan. 30. At the travel agency, he asked Sudad to make a reservation at a five-star hotel in Cairo, where he said the family would wait out the election period.

Abu Muhanned, who declined to give his full name, said he lost his job when the U.S.-led occupation disbanded the Iraqi army in May 2003. He has since become a merchant, but it is hard, competitive work in a capital filled with former military officers and government officials-turned-salesmen.

"This no longer feels like my country," said Abu Muhanned, 45, who was dressed in a gray suit and tie. "We will come back on the 3rd of February, when everything will be finished."

His wife, Um Muhanned, her tiger-print scarf tucked into a black wool jacket, sat at his side. They looked like a fashionable, well-heeled couple about to go on holiday. But Um Muhanned said they were leaving to escape violence -- the suicide bombers, the gunmen, the insurgents who have vowed to hunt down and kill anyone who votes.

"It is getting worse and worse," she said. "I am afraid now even when I am sitting here that a car bomb will explode in any minute and all of us will die."

Um Muhanned, who also declined to give her full name, said she wished she could stay home. But even if she did, she said, she would not vote.

"I am not crazy," she said. "I just want to stay alive until I can leave the country for good. My husband works here in Baghdad; otherwise, I would take him and live outside of Iraq." In the past, she added, "I would have been proud if my husband died in the war, as he was an officer. . . . I hate this country now."

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