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Hussein al-Najar, center, talks politics with his father, Majid al-Najar, right, and Jawadat Khamal at his home in Baghdad's Hay al-Amil neighborhood. Hussein al-Najar, a member of the Iraqi Communist Party, sees renewed hopes for Iraq's beleaguered secularists. Much of that optimism has gathered behind the candidacy of former Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, seen as a viable challenger in Sunday's elections.
Hussein al-Najar, center, talks politics with his father, Majid al-Najar, right, and Jawadat Khamal at his home in Baghdad's Hay al-Amil neighborhood. Hussein al-Najar, a member of the Iraqi Communist Party, sees renewed hopes for Iraq's beleaguered secularists. Much of that optimism has gathered behind the candidacy of former Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, seen as a viable challenger in Sunday's elections. (Michael Gisick / S&S)
Hussein al-Najar, center, talks politics with his father, Majid al-Najar, right, and Jawadat Khamal at his home in Baghdad's Hay al-Amil neighborhood. Hussein al-Najar, a member of the Iraqi Communist Party, sees renewed hopes for Iraq's beleaguered secularists. Much of that optimism has gathered behind the candidacy of former Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, seen as a viable challenger in Sunday's elections.
Hussein al-Najar, center, talks politics with his father, Majid al-Najar, right, and Jawadat Khamal at his home in Baghdad's Hay al-Amil neighborhood. Hussein al-Najar, a member of the Iraqi Communist Party, sees renewed hopes for Iraq's beleaguered secularists. Much of that optimism has gathered behind the candidacy of former Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, seen as a viable challenger in Sunday's elections. (Michael Gisick / S&S)
A rally for Iraq's small Communist Party drew perhaps 2,000 people on Friday, packing a soccer stadium in central Baghdad.
A rally for Iraq's small Communist Party drew perhaps 2,000 people on Friday, packing a soccer stadium in central Baghdad. (Michael Gisick / S&S)
The boisterous crowd, ranging from young in men in skinny jeans to older men in traditional tribal robes, reflected growing enthusiasm among secular Iraqis. Still, Friday prayers led by a top Shiite candidate elsewhere in Baghdad drew tens of thousands.
The boisterous crowd, ranging from young in men in skinny jeans to older men in traditional tribal robes, reflected growing enthusiasm among secular Iraqis. Still, Friday prayers led by a top Shiite candidate elsewhere in Baghdad drew tens of thousands. (Michael Gisick / S&S)

BAGHDAD — Four years ago, most of the friends and neighbors gathered beneath iconic pictures of Che Guevara and Gandhi in Hussein al-Najar’s living room either didn’t vote or cast their ballots for candidates whose chances might have been summed up by another icon: Don Quixote.

But as Iraqis prepare to go the polls on Sunday, the country’s once disorganized and disillusioned secularists believe momentum is on their side.

“People have seen the results of sectarian politics and religious parties, which have basically been a disaster for this country,” said al-Najar, a high school principal. “They are ready for a different way.”

Hopes that a relatively secular political middle ground could emerge in Iraq have proven wildly inflated before — at no time more so than during the 2005 parliamentary elections, when secular candidates were swept under by a wave of support for Shiite parties backed by the country’s clerical establishment.

But there is at least some evidence to support al-Najar’s confidence. A cross-sectarian coalition led by former Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, has polled strongly in the run-up to the vote and emerged as a viable challenger to the country’s more overtly religious Shiite parties, which have steadily lost ground in recent years.

None of the current alliances are likely to come close to an outright majority in Sunday’s vote. But secularists hope a strong showing at the polls will give them a loud voice in forming — or perhaps leading — the next government. Among other things, that would provide a counterbalance to Iranian influence in Iraq, which has emerged as a prime U.S. concern as American troops begin to depart.

For those gathered in al-Najar’s living room Thursday evening, however, the stakes are less about geopolitics than a rebalancing of domestic life.

“People here feel suffocated,” said Hussein Ali, a college student. “There are no theaters, no parks, nothing for young people to do. All of this is being completely neglected and not just because of security. Now, security is good.”

The group of neighbors who have settled into a sort of nightly debating society here see their own neighborhood as symptomatic of the costs of sectarian politics. A mixed, blue-collar area known as Hay al-Amil, or “Neighborhood of the Workers,” the area became a battleground for Sunni and Shiite militias shortly after the 2005 election.

That was a focus of the U.S. troop “surge” in 2007. Tangles of electrical wires hang low over the streets. Al-Najar points out the homes from which snipers once kept watch.

“The last election was a very harsh experience,” al-Najar said. “It cost us a lot. But, on the other hand, I think it accelerated the changes we are seeing now because it let people see the results of what they were voting for.”

Not all agree with his optimism. Al-Najar’s father, Majid al-Najar, said he remains “absolutely pessimistic” about the outcome.

“The American policy is to get people in power who will help them rob the people and take the resources,” he said. “This is also the Iranian policy.”

Others disagree.

“I think we can see that Iraqi politicians are now the ones making the decisions,” Ali said. “And there is also increased awareness among the people about what is going on, so hopefully this will lead in the end to better government.”

It has, in any case, led to a more interesting election, they say.

“The first election, you could accurately predict exactly what was going to happen,” said Lukman Ahmad, a Kurd who recently returned to the neighborhood from exile in Sweden. “This time we don’t know what will happen, and that in itself is an improvement.”

Evening settles in around al-Najar’s living room. The talk ebbs and flows, wandering off into a debate on the origins of various Arab poets, and a discussion of the oddities of the militiamen who once controlled their streets.

“They would punish you if you had a spare tire in your car, because it meant you didn’t trust in God,” said Jawadat Khamal. “They believed some very strange things.”

But, as the lights flicker on and off, talk keeps circling back to the politics at hand.

“That’s Maliki’s services for you,” Anwar Subhi, a fireman, said in the darkness.

“What we are hoping for,” Hussein al-Najar declared, “is a government that is just 20 percent honest and working.”

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