Iraqis Prepare For This Month's Local Elections

More than 14,000 candidates are running in Iraq's provincial elections scheduled for the end of the month. It's the first time since 2005 that Iraqis are going to the polls. If the process isn't seen as legitimate, Iraq's fragile democracy could be threatened.

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Iraq is preparing for its first big election since 2005. And unlike that last time, just about everybody plans to participate, all major sectarian groups. More than 14,000 candidates are running in the provincial election set for the end of the month. It's an important test for Iraq, because a large, peaceful turnout could strengthen Iraq's fragile democracy, and trouble at the polls could weaken it. NPR's JJ Sutherland reports from Baghdad.

JJ SUTHERLAND: Posters are everywhere. Layers of them sometimes three or four deep are affixed to seemingly every vertical surface in Baghdad. The faces of one politician or another asking for or demanding votes. Some are ripped down or defaced. A new kind of conflict in Iraq. The ubiquitous concrete blast-walls that carve the city into various districts have become the platforms for young, raucous and uncertain democracy. Ibrahim Sumidi is a political analyst.

Mr. IBRAHIM SUMIDI (Political Analyst): By this elections, I think, it is the first step for all Iraqis for sharing power. If we get it slowly, peacefully, and by ensuring integrity, I think we put Iraq on the first step on the democracy.

SUTHERLAND: Iraq is a fractured country. Kurd versus Arab, Sunni versus Shiite, religious versus secular. The idea of sharing power is new, and the idea of power moving from one set of hands to another peacefully is untried. At recent Friday prayers in the Shiite slums of Sadr City, the stage is set as usual. The preacher reads from the Koran. There are some anti-Israel protests, the standard American flag to burn. But there's also a second and highly politicized sermon. But even exhortations of his religious leaders don't impress Amad Hussein(ph). He's 18 years old, unemployed, and has little trust in the political process.

Mr. AMAD HUSSEIN: (Speaking Arabic)

SUTHERLAND: These elections are a lie. The politicians arrange everything among themselves. And even if I vote no, they will change it to yes. That perception is widespread here. Already, accusations of bribery and intimidation are being made. Legitimacy is crucial. For the first time, Sunni's have been brought into the political process in large numbers. And for the first time, parties that hold power may end up losing it. And getting them to respect the outcome is critical. Judge Kassam Hasan Abudi(ph) is with the independent High Election Commission here in Iraq. He says he's sure not everyone will be happy with the results.

Judge KASSAM HASAN ABUDI (Independent High Election Commission): You know, there's some, especially in Iraq, some complaints. Some people who not satisfied with the results.

SUTHERLAND: And if those complaints aren't resolved in a timely and fair manner, it may end up that the ballot box won't be considered by Iraqis a valid way to transfer power. That's the worry of Judge General Ray Odierno, the top American military officer in Iraq.

Judge General RAY ODIERNO (American Military Officer, Iraq): We want to make sure that things stay calm as we seat the new government. That the people who get disappointed, that they don't get disappointed then use violence. They try to use diplomatic and political means.

SUTHERLAND: American and Iraqi officials expect an uptick in violence as election day approaches. Three candidates have already been assassinated, but overall violence is down dramatically. Worries about fraud have brought a host of counter-measures. From the famous ink that everyone will dip their fingers into, to water marks in the ballots, to as many as 200,000 Iraqi and international observers. The provincial elections are only one of a series of voting opportunities for Iraqis planned this year. Erin Matthews is with the National Democratic Institute, which is helping prepare for the elections.

Ms. ERIN MATTHEWS (National Democratic Institute): These elections are important to see how people - at what level they participate, how the parties do, what the post-election atmosphere is. So I think they set the stage for later elections.

SUTHERLAND: And some analysts warn that if the elections are not seen as legitimate, that will cast doubt on the whole idea of resolving the very tough issues Iraq faces through any sort of peaceful political process. JJ Sutherland, NPR News, Baghdad.

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