Ghamer Mehsin walks through the dusty street of Jizr Naft, in Iraq’s Diyala province. Like many people in the region, Mehsin is pessimistic that provincial elections will do anything to improve conditions in his town.

Ghamer Mehsin walks through the dusty street of Jizr Naft, in Iraq’s Diyala province. Like many people in the region, Mehsin is pessimistic that provincial elections will do anything to improve conditions in his town. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

JIZR NAFT, Iraq — Ali Haadi spends each day walking the grounds of this sagging town’s creaky brick schoolhouse, watching for anyone who might plant a bomb.

But he won’t be here Jan. 31, when the school will be a polling place for Iraq’s provincial elections.

"We had an election one year ago, but there have been no changes," he said pleadingly. "There is no water, the streets are bad. No one helps us, not the Iraqis, not the Americans."

In once-restive Diyala province, where the Sunni community of Jizr Naft is located, Iraqis are confident in election day security. But with information about the election slow to get to the largely agrarian population and many fed up with the government, it’s unclear whether there will be many people at polling stations to protect.

Discontent with the Iraqi government courses through poverty-stricken Jizr Naft like the raw sewage that fouls its uneven dirt streets. Grim-faced residents say they lack adequate electricity, clean drinking water and good roads, and most answer skeptically when asked if anything will change after the upcoming election.

"I don’t think so. For five years there have been no changes," said Ghamer Mehsin, who — like most of the lucky residents who have a job — works at a local brick factory.

Most residents are unaware of election day details such as a country-wide curfew that will be in effect through election day — Iraqis are allowed on the streets only to walk to the polling place — and severe road restrictions.

A local Iraqi policeman, dressed in a crisp robe and spotless overcoat in contrast with the battered clothes of his neighbors, looks annoyed when asked whether people are uninformed about the election.

"It’s just our job to secure this area," he said. "Maybe there’s another person who will tell the local people (about the election)."

Residents of Qurzadin — a Shiite stronghold built around a century-old turquoise-domed mosque — were hopeful about voting, but almost no one who was interviewed knew what day the elections are.

They, too, feel abandoned by the government — the power has been out for a month and clean drinking water is scarce.

Factory worker Badr Muhan Msarhed said politicians’ promises to improve conditions in the town will vanish as soon as they are elected.

"We’ve heard that before, but they’re just liars," he said.

In Mandali, a mixed Arab and Kurdish city in eastern Diyala province, crowds of young unemployed men hung out at the market on a recent afternoon. They say they have been forgotten by the government. Most had vague plans to vote but few actually knew where they were supposed to vote.

"The people have no jobs. We need projects, we need factories," said Jawad Khazum, the local president of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two main Kurdish parties.

U.S. Army Lt. Drew Holt, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, estimated that only half of the residents in Mandali know where and when to vote. He said improving the flow of election information is part of the U.S. outreach effort.

The criticism from townspeople, while highlighting the economic devastation wrought by years of war, also shows a strengthening democratic dialogue, said Staff Sgt. Brian Bailey.

"The people complain, but that’s good … They’ve got the right to do so, which means they’ve got a right to change things," he said.

It’s unclear whether the elections in Diyala, a combustible mix of Sunni and Shiite Arabs with heavy concentrations of Kurds up north, will bring change. The current provincial council, consisting of a Shiite coalition and a Turkmen-Kurd-Arab coalition, does not reflect the population of the predominantly Sunni province. Even if Sunnis win more seats, they themselves are divided, which could dilute their clout, according to the Institute of the Study of War.

U.S. troops stress that they will have a background role in the elections, in contrast to 2005, when they ferried transported ballots and protected polling places.

But more than a week before the election, planning security for the polls dominated their days, which included many meetings with Iraqi police, army and tribal leaders. Iraqi security forces will be the faces at the polls, but their strategy is being checked by U.S. forces.

Some U.S. officers in Diyala province deftly navigate the dizzying political landscape in the run up to elections. Others seem disconnected.

"What’s the party that starts with ‘D’?" one young lieutenant asks, referring to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party.

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