As election approaches, Anbar residents fear status quo, not violence
By SETH ROBBINS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 3, 2010
RAMADI, Iraq — As Sunday’s national election approaches, the atmosphere has become more tense in Anbar, once a stronghold of the insurgency but more recently a relatively peaceful province.
A string of deadly bombings, one of which severely injured the provincial governor, has been blamed on rival camps left out of the government and its lucrative American contracts or on al-Qaida in Iraq, which may be seeking to renew the insurgency as American troops prepare to withdraw.
On Tuesday, Gov. Qassim Mohammed al-Fahadawi returned to Ramadi, telling the Anbaris to vote in the election and assuring them that the peace would not be shattered by the recent terror attacks. Iraqi commanders, whose job is to secure Anbar’s more than 300 voting centers, say fear won’t be keeping voters from the polls on Sunday — if they do stay home, it will be because of apathy.
Staff Lt. Gen. Abdul Aziz Mohamed al-Obaidy, commander of Iraqi security forces in Anbar, said he will have between 40,000 and 45,000 security personnel working on election day, securing two rings of checkpoints, with the Iraqi army on the perimeter and the police close to the polling sites. Streets will be cleared of vehicles. Soldiers and police will wear specific badges to thwart anyone wearing stolen or fake uniforms, a ploy used in previous bombings in Baghdad. And there will be female nurses at polling stations to search women. Past bombers have included women and men in women’s clothing.
“The civilians are not afraid and they feel secure, but they don’t feel that after they do the voting that they will have a good government,” al-Obaidy said. “The last seven years they didn’t see anything from the government, so maybe some of them are not going to go to vote now.”
Lt. Col. Ali Muhamad Kadhun al-Saadi, commander of the Iraqi army in the towns of Rawah and Anah, said when he spoke to locals about the election, they expressed more fear of fraud than of violence.
“I told them we would have international and U.N. monitors,” al-Saadi said, “and that they should come out and vote.”
The question lingers as to whether Anbar’s primarily Sunni population will turn out in large numbers. In 2005, Sunnis largely boycotted the elections, making this large desert province bordering Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia a breeding ground for the insurgency and al-Qaida.
Yet it was also here that Sunni tribal leaders struck a deal with U.S. forces in late 2006, renouncing and rebelling against the harsh militancy of the insurgency in favor of American money and contracts, a deal that has since become known as the Sunni Awakening.
Droves of Sunnis went on to participate in the 2009 provincial election, further signaling their desire to attain power democratically, and a large turnout for the national election would likely show growing confidence in the central government.
But some voters may have grown jaded by seeing the same failings after casting votes in successive elections. High unemployment in Anbar has led to the sense that the new provincial government is benefiting its officials much more than local Anbaris.
At one polling site, Abdullah Najim Abdullah, principal of a primary school for boys, said, “People want change,” echoing a slogan that has worked its way into Iraqi politics, too. He says he has seen change: The Iraqis are better at campaigning, politicking and carrying out elections.
“For the past seven years, the situation deteriorated to the point that there are no services, no structures, no sanitation. So people want to vote for a different government,” Abdullah said. “The process hasn’t gotten us anywhere yet. It’s hard to get excited.”