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In Iraqi Vote, the Writing Isn't on the Wall

There is a sense among some in Baghdad that the United States wants the new parliament to choose Allawi, the incumbent, as prime minister. If the Americans want it, the conversation goes, so it will be. This reflects the deep vein of conspiracy theories that runs through Baghdad life these days -- from a rumor that the Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi, blamed for some of Iraq's most spectacular carnage, is an American fabrication, to a rumor voiced by Abed that Iraqis who don't vote will have their monthly food rations taken away.

"Maybe it's not correct," he said, "but it's what people are saying."

Campaign posters on Baghdad's Waziriya Street are full of promise, but Iraqis greet them warily. The placards are often candidates' only way to reach out to voters because fears of insurgent attacks have made large public rallies and speeches all but impossible. (Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)

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Awaiting the Chaos

Down the street from Abed's shop are other posters, cluttering the entrance to the city's Academy of Fine Arts, past vendors selling tea from rickety stalls with cardboard roofs and kiosks selling candy and stationery to students milling along the street.

Some of the leaflets are distributed by the Iraqi electoral commission, urging Iraqis to vote "for the sake of the future of Iraq" or women to take part in the ballot "to bring life to democracy and equality." Alongside them are the posters of the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, the royalist group whose leader, Sharif Ali bin Hussein, promises "security, stability, justice and prosperity."

Around the corner sat one of the monarchist party's candidates, Muatasim Idris, who works for an engineering firm.

His campaign, like many, is a subdued one: no speeches, no rallies and no meetings. Holding out his hand, the 35-year-old Idris ticked off the threats he would face campaigning: He could be targeted in a bombing, his car could be stolen, his family could be threatened. Come election day, he said, he expects dozens of families in his neighborhood to abandon their houses near schools, where polling stations may be set up.

"I'm a moving target," Idris said, with a wry smile. "I only campaign among the people I trust -- family and friends."

"We know there will be balbala," he said, meaning confusion and chaos. "There's no way around it. You can already hear it every day. People are scared. Even in their houses, they feel scared. But we have to decide the fate of our country. We can't abandon it."

In his office, adorned with a picture of Islam's holiest shrine in Mecca and a Koranic verse inscribed on a mirror, Idris sat with his 45-year-old cousin, Ali Saleh. In a familiar lament, they worried about Iraq -- that it would take a generation for it to return to what it was before the Americans arrived, before Hussein's tyranny, before the wars and brutality that have littered their lifetime.

"We have a long history in Iraq," Saleh said. "Saddam was not new. How many generations have had to live like this?" He looked out the window of his firm, the Mustafa Factory, past the Constitutional Monarchy posters and the Communist Party leaflets on a concrete barrier outside. "Our generation has been raised on violence. They cannot solve their problems peacefully."

Members of a younger generation sat in the courtyard at the Academy of Fine Arts, graced with statues from Baghdad's Abbassid dynasty, the milieu of the Arabian Nights and the stories that give Baghdad its nostalgia. Next to a student playing "Hotel California" on an acoustic guitar was Muntasir Jalal and his friend, Dalal Mohammed. Jalal is a Christian, Mohammed a Sunni.

The vote "is our opportunity," Jalal insisted.

Mohammed rolled her eyes, then shook her head.

"I'm a Sunni, and the Sunnis are boycotting," she said. "It's going to lead to a lot of troubles. I just have a feeling."

On a nearby wall, a poster with Sistani's portrait urged people to vote. Across the courtyard was a banner: "This is how nations begin to decide their destiny . . . through the ballot box," it said.

"I don't pay attention to them," Mohammed said. "I am pessimistic. I'm pessimistic about life, about everything. I want to leave Iraq. That would be the best thing."

Jalal laughed at her. "She's going to carry an RPG," a rocket-propelled grenade.

He tried to turn the conversation in a better direction. They were artists, he insisted.

"In art, there are no politics," Jalal said, reassuringly. "We're just busy painting."

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