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Iraqis Stake Hopes for Future on Provincial Election

Millions of Iraqis voted peacefully on Jan. 31 in the country's first provincial elections since 2005.

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By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 30, 2009

BAGHDAD, Jan. 29 -- Shahbandar Cafe still stands, a testament to the resilience of the country and its capital, Baghdad, even if so much here has changed.

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Rebuilt after a March 2007 bombing, its blue columns are now brown and its walls an undefiled tan brick. Pictures of the last king, Faisal II, executed in a republican revolution, share space with portraits of the owner's four sons and grandson, killed in a sectarian war. Even the locale, forever Shahbandar to its denizens, a century-old establishment once the city's intellectual nexus, bears a new name: Martyrs' Cafe.

As Iraq prepares to vote Saturday in its first election since 2005, the conversation has changed, too. The words of the cafe-goers, laced with proverbs and poetry, illustrate what may stand as the legacy of an election that will begin shaping a new political landscape, as the Obama administration prepares to withdraw U.S. troops.

In a country long bedeviled by questions of legitimacy -- over the American presence, the constitution, a de facto sectarian and ethnic system, and the excesses of security forces of dubious loyalty -- elections have now won an enthusiastic if grudging fealty, emerging as a true arena for contest in which nearly every sect, ethnicity and tribe in the country has staked its future.

In 2005, there was a chorus of agreement in Shahbandar. Customer after customer, each wearing a frayed jacket and sipping a cup of tea, insisted that the election itself was more important than the choice of candidates. The vote, simply by taking place, would mark the end of one Iraq.

"Without elections, there will be tyranny," Kadhim Hassan, a writer, said then.

"There's real competition this time around," Jassim Ismail, a retired teacher, said Thursday. "We're firing a bullet of mercy today at what's happened in the past."

Saturday's vote marks perhaps the most competitive election in the country's history, as Iraqis choose the leadership of 14 of 18 provinces. Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the last vote, delivering Shiites and Kurds disproportionate power in some provinces, including Baghdad, Diyala and Nineveh. In predominantly Shiite southern Iraq and Sunni western Iraq, power coalesced around ostensibly religious parties, building on clandestine organizations in exile, underground networks under Saddam Hussein, support from Iran and other neighbors, and, occasionally, the end of a militiaman's gun.

By 2006, internecine war had erupted, quieting only last year.

In this election, every incumbent party faces spirited opposition. In all, more than 14,400 candidates on 400 lists will vie for 440 seats on the provincial councils. The results will undoubtedly lead to a country that is more representative but also more fractious, and in that, maybe more turbulent.

In Anbar province, the region of western Iraq that was once the most lethal for the U.S. military, tribal figures and former insurgents are seeking to end the monopoly on power held by the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the few Sunni groups that participated in the 2005 election. To ensure its survival, the party has tried to forge coalitions with those same tribes.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, forgoing the slogans of his Islamist past for a platform of law and order, is trying to curb the power of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, still one of the most ardently sectarian groups. It controls four of nine provinces in Iraq's predominantly Shiite south and insists it will capture at least as many this time.


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