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In Cafe Debate, a Victory for Elections

At Intersection of Old and New Iraq, the Vote Itself Is What Counts

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 14, 2005; Page A01

BAGHDAD, Jan. 13 -- In Shahbandar, a storied Baghdad cafe whose name evokes a time (the past) and a milieu (the highbrow), three men sat over cigarettes and hourglass cups of sweet tea Thursday and debated what the coming elections meant for a country scarred by three decades of tyranny, war and bitter disillusionment.

"Going to the polling stations is a victory for the Iraqi people," said Ali Danif, a 45-year-old writer.

A U.S. Army helicopter flies over billboards in central Baghdad that urge Iraqis to participate in national legislative elections on Jan. 30. (Atef Hassan -- Reuters)

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"The elections are more important than the candidates," insisted Jamal Karim, his garrulous friend.

Not to be outdone, a smiling Suheil Yassin jumped in. "It's one of my wishes to die at the gate of the polling station," he said, a gesture that was self-consciously dramatic. "I want to be a martyr for the ballot box."

Iraq's first competitive elections in decades are an oddly subdued affair. Violence lurks menacingly over the process, which will end with the selection of a new parliament on Jan. 30. Candidates' names are not published, for fear of assassination. Rallies are few, posters are often torn down, and hardly anyone can describe a party's platform, much less its nominees.

But in Shahbandar, a century-old cafe long the intellectual heart of this weary city, where men in frayed suit jackets and sweater vests cluster in small circles to debate, there is a pronounced optimism about what the elections signify among people who have grasped for a turning point during nearly two years of occupation. For many of the men gathered here, sitting under portraits of Baghdad's history, the elections are more important than the candidates.

"Without elections, there will be tyranny," said Kadhim Hassan, a 37-year-old writer.

A late-morning light bathed the crowded cafe in a soft glow as Hassan sat on a narrow wooden bench. He called the vote a "historic moment," then his face turned hard. "War and disasters," he said, shaking his head -- that's what Iraqis have been born into.

"Now most people feel they are living in darkness," Hassan said. "It's time for us to come into the light."

Shahbandar, with its vaulted ceilings and brick walls, is an artifact of what some might call a more civilized time in Baghdad, before conversations revolved around the kidnappings that have become epidemic, before the frustrations with electricity that has yet to improve, before the complaints over gas lines that can stretch miles and have for more than a month.

Antique water pipes are stacked in rows three deep, along with samovars and brass decanters collecting dust. Outside is the warren of bookstores along Mutanabi Street, named for a 10th-century sage, whose words can still be quoted from memory by nearly all Arabs. Around the corner is the Qushla, the seat in Baghdad of the Ottoman government, which fell in World War I. It was about that time that the cafe was renovated and officially named for its former owners, who began attracting the city's men of letters.

Shahbandar doesn't have backgammon tables, cards or dominoes, the accoutrements of most Arab cafes. In their place is talk -- a lot of it -- especially around noon, when space on the couches is limited and cigarette butts pile up on the floor.

"I'm not persuaded by the elections," declared Abdel-Rahman Abbas, 60, a former municipal worker with a well-groomed mustache and blue sports jacket. "The Americans can do what they want, and they've already made up their mind."

Abbas was worried. He shared the cynicism voiced by many about Iraq's preeminent political parties, most of which operated in exile during Saddam Hussein's era. He said he figured the elections would only inflame sectarian divisions that, despite provocation after provocation, have yet to explode. And he gave voice to the nostalgia evoked so often here: In his mind, the monarchy that fell in 1958 would be as good as any government.

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