Iraq's Diyala Province Puts Power of Ballot to the Test

Millions of Iraqis voted peacefully on Jan. 31 in the country's first provincial elections since 2005.
SOURCE: | The Washington Post - February 01, 2009
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 1, 2009

BAQUBAH, Iraq, Jan. 31 -- In Iraq's receding but still entrenched sectarian struggle, perhaps the most important votes in the provincial elections Saturday were cast in Diyala, a sometimes picturesque province known for its orange groves and its killing fields.

American officials have insisted the vote Saturday must prove credible -- that is, relatively free of fraud, with its results acceptable to most of its participants -- if elections are to begin taking root as a mechanism to transfer power in a country that has begun bracing for the intangibles of a U.S. withdrawal.

In Diyala, credibility would mark a watershed moment, both for this troubled province and for Iraq itself, where power has long been monopolized by a party or man.

In 2005, the Sunni Arab majority here largely boycotted the vote, delivering nearly two-thirds of the seats on the old provincial council to Shiite Arabs and Kurds, and helping ignite a struggle that stands as one of the bloodiest theaters of Iraq's sectarian war. Save for those in a radical fringe, no one boycotted Saturday, potentially making the vote the first since the fall of President Saddam Hussein to take power from one constituency -- Shiite Arabs and, to a lesser extent, Kurds -- and deliver it to another: Sunni Arabs.

But perception may prove an obstacle in Diyala, where 638 candidates vied for 29 seats in a province that was so tense party activists hardly ever ventured across sectarian borders, a candidate and his two aides were kidnapped and executed, and leaflets still littered some streets to warn residents that casting votes was tantamount to treason against God and country.

On Saturday, it felt changed. Only the most dangerous neighborhoods seemed besieged. Elsewhere, children played soccer in the streets, parents pushed their children in strollers and elderly men shared cigarettes under a winter sun.

Yet in Saturday's vote, no one, neither Sunni nor Shiite, seemed prepared to lose. And that raised the prospect that in defeat, neither would acknowledge the other's victory.

"A new dawn, God willing," said Sabah Bashir Hassan, known as Abu Talib, who leads thousands of former insurgents and others in the Popular Committees, the name here for the U.S.-backed Sunni militia that fought the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

"To me, the elections represent the point between darkness and light," the Sunni leader said. "Everybody wants to turn a page on the past. We're turning a new page over today."

Raad Abbas, a Shiite member of the old council and a candidate, also felt certain of triumph over his rivals. He predicted his group, the Dawa party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, would capture a third of the seats. With other Shiite candidates, they would win a majority.

"If this is the result of the vote, how can anyone be angry?" he asked hopefully.

Some residents like to call Diyala a miniature Iraq and, indeed, much of its turmoil reflects the country writ small. Northeast of Baghdad, its fertile land of dates and citrus, watered by the Diyala River, stretches to the Iranian border. Its Sunni Arab majority numbers 55 percent and perhaps far more. Shiites are the second-largest group, possibly a third of the population, with a sizable Kurdish minority toward the province's northern end.

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