Amid Escalating Violence, Iraqis Head To Ballot Boxes

Iraqis vote Wednesday in the country's first national election since U.S. forces withdrew in 2011. Steve Inskeep talks to Prashant Rao, Iraq bureau chief for Agence France Presse.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's go next to Iraq, which is holding an election today. The elections for a new parliament and prime minister are the first since U.S. forces withdrew from that country in 2011, and the voting comes amid escalating sectarian violence. Almost 3,000 people have been killed just since the start of this year.

We're going to talk about all this with Prashant Rao. He is the Iraq bureau chief for AFP. He's in Baghdad. Welcome back to the program.

PRASHANT RAO: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: So what's Baghdad like in this Election Day?

RAO: Well, at the moment, it's pretty calm because the city's effectively been shut down to vehicle traffic. There's been a vehicle curfew declared. So all you see is people here and there walking to their local polling centers. Most of the shops are shut because it's a public holiday. And right now, very few people have gone to their polling centers but the expectation is the numbers will increase after mid-day, after people have had a bite to eat.

INSKEEP: So what were the last few days of campaigning like?

RAO: The last few days of campaigning were very much like the rest of the campaign, in fact, in that the prime minister was at the center of the debate about whether or not he should get a third term. Nouri al-Maliki, of course, has been prime minister since 2006, and there's been a lot of opposition to his rule, particularly from minority groups, including Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

The campaigning has been, of course, blighted by several major attacks. On Friday, a political rally for the political wing of a Shia militia group was attacked. The attack was claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. That's the al-Qaida-inspired group that also is quite active in Syria. And then just on Monday, in fact, upwards of 60 people were killed - several of them security forces, as the security forces went for early voting ahead of today's general election. So, it's been very bloody as well as being quite dynamic, in terms of people sort of making last-ditch attempts to garner votes.

INSKEEP: You know, I just want to remember here, there are three major groups in Iraq: Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs and Kurds. Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, is Shia. His government is Shia-led. And you just said that the opposition has largely been from those other two groups. And we were just talking about sectarian violence. Is there a connection between the politics of Iraq right now and the violence in Iraq right now?

RAO: Well, first, let me just stress that the prime minister isn't, by any means, leading a unified Shia community. There's a lot of dissent within the Shia camp against his rule as well. A lot of the violence is said to stem from Sunni militant groups who are getting fuel from the fact that there is a lot of disaffection in the Sunni community. And the politics very much plays into that. Political leaders regularly criticize the prime minister and his government for not doing enough to reach out to Sunnis to provide them with jobs, to provide them with adequate security and adequate economic opportunity. And as a result, while most Sunnis do not actively participate or support any form of militancy, they're probably less likely to want to deal with the security forces and the authorities, and to provide intelligence and to provide support to them.

INSKEEP: What kind of a case is Nouri al-Maliki making for himself?

RAO: Well, he's sort of presenting himself as the bulwark against a very strong extremist militant group that is pushing against Iraq's western front. That's, of course, the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant. As far as he's concerned, he is sort of the guarantor of Iraq's security, and the person who will stand up to Sunni extremists who are flowing in from Syria and supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. And these are his words.

Of course, the criticism of him is that he's not doing enough to actually bring Iraqi Sunnis into the fold and bring them into the political process, and offer them things so that they're less likely to passively support or look the other way in the face of militancy.

INSKEEP: You know, I don't know what sense you can get from interviews with people on the street or public opinion polling but as best you can determine, do most Iraqis seem to be optimistic about the direction their country is heading?

RAO: So it's important to say that there is very little - in fact, nothing in the way of reliable public opinion polling in Iraq. But anecdotally, there's a lot of frustration; especially in Baghdad, in terms of the direction the country is going. Oil production is, of course, going up, but there's a lot of frustration over the fact that security is markedly deteriorated. There isn't that much economic opportunity outside of public service.

Public services don't seem to have improved to the extent that they should have, given how much money is coming into the national budget. There's still regular electricity shortfalls. Baghdad had suffered from severe flooding in the winter, as a result of not terribly heavy rain. So there is a lot of frustration in Baghdad. Of course, the prime minister still retains a lot of support in the south - in his heartland - in the provinces south of Baghdad, which are predominantly Shia; who still see him as the defender of Iraq, as somebody who's going to stand up to the Sunni militancy.

INSKEEP: Prashant Rao is the Iraq bureau chief for the French wire service Agence France-Presse. Thanks very much.

RAO: Thank you.

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