Anbar on Edge After Tense Ballot

Irreverent campaign gives way to threats in Sunni Arab province that was once a centre of insurgency.

Anbar on Edge After Tense Ballot

Irreverent campaign gives way to threats in Sunni Arab province that was once a centre of insurgency.

Strong winds scattered campaign posters through the streets of Anbar, a war-scarred western region where the results of Iraq’s provincial elections have uncovered a deep vein of discontent.

In Anbar’s capital, Ramadi, posters that survived the winds were being torn down by children to be turned into kites. Some of the children competed with each other to be the first to remove the advertisements of a particular party.

A nine-year-old stood aside, warning the others against taking down the posters of a sheikh, or leader, from his tribe. “Whoever removes the poster is against the sheikh and I will inform the sheikh of it,” he said.

Traditional tribal leaders are among the biggest winners in Anbar’s elections. Their Sahwa coalition was formed from the US-backed Awakening militias, credited with restoring order to the strife-torn province.

The province’s mainly Sunni Arab population has rattled the politicians who took power after polls four years ago that most of the province’s electorate boycotted.

A coalition that included the incumbent Iraqi Islamic Party came third with nearly 16 per cent of the vote. The party is a major Sunni Arab player in the federal government in Baghdad. In the absence of strong competition, it has until now dominated Anbar’s politics, with 81 per cent of the seats on the outgoing provincial council.

Preliminary results from this election show the Sahwa coalition polled more than 17 per cent of the vote, coming a narrow second to the Iraqi National Project, a party led by a stridently anti-American Sunni politician Salih al-Mutlaq.

Though the elections were peaceful, tensions between the rival parties soared after the vote, threatening to revive Anbar’s reputation as Iraq’s most violent province.

Competing alliances claimed victory and traded allegations of voter fraud. Tribal leaders from the Awakening militia were quoted warning of “military operations” if their opponents from the Iraqi Islamic Party won the polls.

The threats, later downplayed, underscored the frailty of Anbar’s peace. The new players in the province include many former insurgents, who expect their participation in politics to be rewarded.

This year’s polls were seen by the Americans as a chance to consolidate recent security gains by drawing Sunni Arabs away from the battlefield and into provincial politics.

Campaigning was vigorous in the run-up to the elections, surprising some visitors for whom the city was synonymous with strife.

Hazim Muhammad returned from Canada to find he could barely recognise his old hometown, Ramadi.

“I thought I had got the wrong address,” he said, describing streets where every surface – from blast walls to electricity pylons – had been used to fix campaign posters.

Having lived in Canada for most of the past 16 years, his strongest impressions of Ramadi came from memories of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and media coverage of the violence that followed the US invasion in 2003.

“These depressing images left my mind when I saw posters for male and female candidates. I felt as if I was still outside Iraq,” he said.

Many of the campaign posters were defaced.

Posters for a list that included the Iraqi Islamic Party appeared particularly prone to graffiti – an early indication perhaps of the incumbents’ poor showing at the ballot box.

The list’s slogan “With us, your life is valuable” invited puns on the Arabic word, qima, which could mean value or mincemeat. Posters with the slogan were altered to read “With us, your life is mincemeat”.

Elsewhere, candidates’ pictures had their eyes gouged out or red paint splashed across them. Portraits of Anbar’s provincial council members had the word “thief” scrawled over them, and the question “Where did you get your money from?”

Barely anyone took part in Anbar’s previous provincial elections in 2005. Most Sunni Arabs stayed at home, amid calls for a boycott from clerics and threats of attack from the militants.

During this period, the Iraqi wing of al-Qaeda dominated the insurgency. Its tactics eventually alienated the local Sunni Arab tribes who went on to form the Awakening militias which battled the extremists. Official buildings in the province were bombed and candidates for election were killed.

Many put their political ambitions on hold, including Rumayyidh Mohammad Jasim, who this year stood as a candidate for Salih al-Mutlaq’s Iraqi Project Rally.

“I wanted to nominate myself for the previous provincial council but I was threatened by the insurgents. I withdrew for the sake of my family,” he said.

Jasim said he had confidence in Mutlaq because of his “patriotic attitude”. Mutlaq has long championed the rights of Sunni Arabs and fought this election on a nationalist ticket.

The polls this year were peaceful. The only gunfire reported in the streets of Ramadi was celebratory, when guards from the Sahwa coalition drove through the city, firing into air.

The contrast with 2005 was marked. The gunmen on the streets of Ramadi back then were not in uniform and the gunfire came from combat with American troops.

However, turnout this year in Anbar was among the lowest in Iraq, at 40 per cent. Coupled with the narrow gap between the three leading parties, who are separated by no more than three percentage points, this has fuelled allegations of fraud.

Iraq’s electoral commission is investigating the allegations. Despite fighting talk from rivals, armed conflict has been avoided so far, aided perhaps by regular curfews.

The threats of violence and the low turnout are worrying signs from an otherwise successful election that has delivered more power to Anbar’s Sunni Arabs.

Though security in the province has improved since 2005, it seems little else has.

Suad Wafiq, an elderly woman from the Andalus neighbourhood in Ramadi, said campaign funds should have been spent on “widows and the poor and the families of detainees.

“It would be much better than wasting money on papers and photos of candidates that get torn down and burnt.”

Daud Salman is an IWPR-trained reporter in Ramadi and Neil Arun is an IWPR Iraq editor in Erbil.
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