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One of the biggest fears in Iraq is that it'll be overtaken, again, by sectarian violence before it can form a new government. And that fear was reinforced yesterday after a newly elected lawmaker was murdered.
When Iraqis cast their votes back in March in a parliamentary election, the vote was deemed free and fair. It was also inconclusive, which is why negotiating a government will go on for several more weeks. As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Baghdad, the view from the street is increasingly pessimistic, with many choosing to leave the country.
PETER KENYON: Until late last year, Salhiya Street in central Baghdad served as a busy transportation hub, with buses to Syria and Jordan lined up bumper-to-bumper. But since massive explosions struck the nearby justice ministry last October, the buses have vanished, leaving only those travel agencies who can't afford to move.
At Ariha Travel, 40-year-old Haider Hamed says the buses have moved to another neighborhood, but people still come here to buy tickets out. He says around the March elections, business was relatively slow but now it's picking up again.
Hamed wouldn't call it a panic, but the families he sees are those who have decided to play it safe by leaving now - to Syria, Jordan, and sometimes onto Europe or elsewhere - at least for this period of uncertainty.
Mr. HAIDER HAMED (Travel agent, Ariha Travel): (Through translator) They put it like this: let's get out now, and keep an eye on the situation in the coming months. If things get stabilized, then we can come back and if not, at least we have a safe place.
KENYON: Iraqis watched a Sunni-supported bloc led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi come in first in the March balloting. And then watched current Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, announce a partnership of sorts with the Iraqi National Alliance that could put the Shiites close to again controlling parliament and the government.
At times, reaction on the street can seem predictably sectarian. In west Baghdad, Durgham Sabah, a 25-year-old Sunni, says it's clear to him what's going on: Allawi won, but months later the Shiites are still blocking him from forming a government.
Mr. DURGHAM SABAH: (Through translator) Why is that? Allawi got the most seats, and the constitution says he should form the government. If Maliki had won, you can bet the government would have been formed in a hurry. What has Maliki done? Four years and we have no security, no jobs, no water, no electricity.
KENYON: As helicopters circle over another corner of the city, Abu Ali, a 27-year-old unemployed Shiite originally from Diyala Province, says he was glad to see Maliki's State of Law Party join forces with the other Shiite bloc. He doesn't worry about the new government being too sectarian.
Mr. ABU ALI: (Through translator) No, it's not sectarian at all, and the process will go on without sectarianism. The State of Law and the Alliance are two good blocs. They've allied, and the people accept that.
KENYON: And yet it would be a mistake to pigeonhole Iraqis according to their sect, because frustration at political stagnation crosses all boundaries. It only takes a couple of follow-up questions before Abu Ali throws up his hands in disgust with both of the leading prime ministerial contenders.
Mr. ALI: (Through translator) Look, Maliki is similar to Allawi, and Allawi is similar to Maliki. They might as well be brothers. That's what I feel they're both the same. And may God help us.
KENYON: Back at the travel agency on Salhiya Street, Haider Hamed says he knows exactly how those frustrated Iraqis feel. He, himself, left the country during the worst of the sectarian violence, and would consider it now if it weren't for family obligations here.
Mr. HAMED: (Through translator) I lost two brothers during the sectarian bloodshed, now there's no one left to raise their kids. I'm in charge of too many orphans. There are people now, just waiting for their kids to finish school exams. I think we'll see a lot more families leave after that.
KENYON: As the apprehension on the street mounts, politicians from all factions seem to agree on one thing at least: the serious bargaining is only just now beginning.
One of Hamed's neighbors and competitors, Abu Abdullah of al-Warka Travel Agency, says he wonders if the politicians realize how urgently Iraqis need them to get moving, before the public's badly strained faith in their leaders reaches the breaking point. When asked if he expects the parties to build a stable and responsive government out of the current confusion, he smiles wryly and says: we hope so, but do you expect a cool breeze in summer?
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Baghdad.
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