Newborn Haidar Karrar rests in his mother’s arms as she casts her vote from her hospital bed in the country’s provincial elections in Najaf, Iraq, on Wednesday.

Newborn Haidar Karrar rests in his mother’s arms as she casts her vote from her hospital bed in the country’s provincial elections in Najaf, Iraq, on Wednesday. (Alaa al-Marjani/AP)

BAGHDAD — In four unremarkable warehouses in an equally unremarkable corner of Baghdad, household products that will eventually make their way to Iraqi homes move alongside election materials that insurgents are willing to kill and die to disrupt.

The warehouse is part of an election storage and distribution site in a commercial complex. The site has been busy in recent days with workers getting ready for Saturday’s provincial elections.

With Iraq on the cusp of true stability, it is impossible to overstate the importance of this year’s elections. Iraqis will duck into voting booths and, by writing a few small numbers, voice their opinion about where the country has been and where it’s going. But like the consumer goods moving alongside official documents, this election will be an event of contrasts: Hope moving alongside despair.

This election is one that leaders have declared a landmark on the road to Iraqi sovereignty. Nowhere was this clearer than at the storage site itself. A fresh-faced Iraqi second lieutenant oversaw the security of the area. Iraqi army soldiers and Iraqi police manned multiple security checkpoints without a single American, while representatives from the Independent High Electoral Commission managed the site.

U.S. forces helped with security for the site. But the American brigade commander for the area doesn’t even venture into the actual storage area for the election materials except to have tea with election officials.

On election day, U.S. soldiers will be limited to the outer cordon around polling stations. Most Baghdad units have been ordered not to move anywhere unless absolutely necessary from 10 p.m. Friday until 5 a.m. Sunday.

"This is actually a good time in history because Iraq never had such an opportunity to go through an open and democratic process," the Iraqi lieutenant says.

This election will test Iraqi acceptance of that still-new democratic process. Iraqis have watched their chosen parties posture in provincial councils for the past four years with few results, said Mohammad Wali al-Saidy, the head of the al-Sada newspaper, a Baghdad newspaper that received help from an American grant.

Democracy may be the law, he said, but the Iraqi people’s frustrations have caused many to remain suspicious of the democratic idea in general. Many say they won’t vote. Only time will tell if that proves to be the case.

"The Iraqi people, they’re jaded and they’ve lost hope," he said. "That depression that they’re feeling now … has contributed to their boycotting the current elections. Therefore, Iraqi institutes, the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people have implemented democracy as a procedure, not as a culture."

This election, candidates will try to win back the voters’ trust. Muslem Achmet Saleh, the chairman for Baghdad’s Kadhamiyah District Council, is one of those candidates. He knows that the Iraqi people still are suffering and that they want representatives who can build back Iraq.

"It’s very important to the Iraqis and the citizens — when they elect someone, they want to know the right person is going to represent them," he said. "The candidates are going to do what they promise to do."

This election, voters will have more say than ever about who represents them in the provincial council. Leaders changed election rules to try to bring more accountability to the process. Voters can now pick individual provincial council members instead of just voting for a party as they did in the last election.

"That was a bad rule," Saleh said. "The lists probably had some people in there who aren’t going to serve the people."

This election, Iraqi voters will be sifting through more candidates than they could ever get to know. The rule change has encouraged more than 100 parties and 2,400 candidates to compete for just 57 seats on Baghdad’s provincial council, for example.

"There is a flooding of political parties," al-Saidy said. "Iraqi people were suppressed for 40 years and now they’re exploding."

Most of these candidates have limited their campaigning to signs posted in key locations, said al-Saidy, who thinks they should have gone on TV, given interviews to the media and debated one another so that the people would know something about them. As the situation stands, he sees only three options for voters: Don’t vote, vote randomly, or vote for a known party they’re already predisposed toward.

"Voters are confused and do not know who to vote for," he said. "Voters do not know much about the people they’re voting for except their pictures on the posters. Maybe they will even vote for the people with the nicest suit and tie."

This election, Iraqis are reaching back to the secular spirit that flourished before the war. Years of sectarian fighting have soured the country on religious parties, said Qassim Mozan, a reporter with the al-Sada newspaper. That bodes well for the secular parties, but even many religious parties have repositioned themselves as secular.

"They gambled on the sectarian project and that has fallen apart now," Mozan said.

Still, the Iraqis’ low opinion of the Baghdad provincial council’s performance over the past few years means many will continue to be skeptical of whoever takes office after the election.

"We trust some of the liberal and secular leaders, but it’s not a blind trust," he said.

This election, thousands of Iraqis will risk it all to ensure everyone’s voice is heard. The IHEC representative at the storage and distribution site is one of those. Most of his family is working on this election. Many, like him, also worked to make sure the 2005 vote went well. He’s lost seven relatives to election violence, and his identity is being withheld to protect his own security.

Yet the man ticks off each small step toward the big day with the understated pride of a manager working a peacetime job.

"Some logistics items were distributed to the polling sites and everything got where it’s needed," the man said. "Right now, really I feel good. Everything is coordinated and moving well. I’m very proud."

Most of all, this election will determine Iraq’s next path. New groups are campaigning. Old groups are splitting. The Americans are withdrawing. Whatever happens when voters enter the polling booths, they will emerge with a new government that will chart its own course for the country.

"This election, everything is changed," Saleh said.

Election basics

When: Saturday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Positions: 440 open seats for provincial councils in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Provinces in the Kurdish region in northern Iraq will hold elections later.

Who can vote: Iraqi citizens who are legally competent; 18 years old as of 2009; and registered to vote.

Procedure: Voters must show valid ID at the polls and sign their names or give thumbprints next to their names. Paper ballots will be used.

Security: Three "rings" of security. Iraqi police will man the inner ring, Iraqi National Police, the middle ring. U.S. soldiers will be stationed only at the outer ring and share duties with the National Police.

Election monitors: About 60,000 local observers and 14 representatives of the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the European Union.

Number of registered voters: 2.9 million Iraqis (17 percent of the electorate).

Number of polling locations: 7,000

Amount of election materials: 559 tons

Number of parties: 502

Number of coalitions: 36

Number of candidates: 14,431 candidates, including 3,912 women. There is an average of 33 candidates per position.

Sources: Independent High Electoral Commission; Institute for the Study of War

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