Military history

CHAPTER 13

Just Talking

THE WORKERS at the General Factory for Vegetable Oil took their seats in the fifth-floor meeting hall to listen to the speech. The election was two weeks away, and the violence had driven the campaigning indoors. More than 7, 400 Iraqis were running for office. But they weren’t really running: there were almost no rallies, no parades, no public gatherings. A number of candidates had been murdered; the ones who remained flitted about like ghosts, appearing briefly and disappearing as fast.

A man stood first to warm up the crowd. He had written a poem for the occasion.

“Iraq, my soul, my wounds are still not healed,” he said. “What a pity that in this land where we were masters, we have now become the slaves.”

He sat down, and two men walked to the front of the factory hall. They were surrounded by men with machine guns. The first man introduced himself as Abu Muntaher al-Naqid and the second as Hussein Ali. They said they wanted to talk to the workers about the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the big Shiite coalition that was expected to sweep the election. The moment, indeed, belonged to the Shiites; they had been the majority in Iraq since its birth but had never held power. Through the unlikely events of the American invasion, it was finally in their grasp.

“We Iraqis are not used to this democracy,” Naqid told the workers “we don’t know what this election is.”

Naqid’s credibility came from his face, which was gaunt and battered. He wore a plain set of clothes.

“The people—that is you—need someone to tell you what democracy is—what a constitution is, what freedom is, and why you need to respect the opinions of others,” Naqid said. “The UIA can do this if you give them a chance.”

The vegetable oil workers listened intently, even with fascination. The men from the UIA were asking for their support. No one who had ever sought power in Iraq had ever done such a thing.

“We are prepared to take your questions,” Naqid said.

The workers seemed a little stunned—there was a long pause—then one of the workers called out from his plastic chair.

“I’m worried about Israel,” he said. “Israel’s influence and secret operations inside Iraq.”

Ali was ready with an answer.

“We stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine,” he said. “And, God willing, we will help to liberate them.”

The crowd started to get the hang of it. Another man raised his voice.

“How can I be sure that the UIA is supported by Ayatollah Sistani? This is very important to me.”

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s gaunt, humorless face adorned every UIA election placard. He was the Shiite God-king.

“If you like, you can go to Najaf and ask him yourself,” Ali snapped.

Everyone laughed. One of the workers, Adnan Khazel, a young man, leaned over and whispered: “If this party has been approved by Sistani, then I will support it. There is really nothing else.”

One of the workers raised his hand and asked what seemed like a silly question. “How can we be sure that you yourselves are candidates?” he asked. “Are you on the list yourself?”

Naqid and Ali both froze.

“It’s a secret,” Ali said. “It’s too dangerous for us to say who the candidates are. Too dangerous.”

The staff of the General Factory for Vegetable Oil looked on in silence. Naqid and Ali turned on their heels and, with their bodyguards in tow, left the room.

Later that day, an election worker handed me a UIA flier. Sistani’s unhappy face looked out from the top. The poster listed the names of thirty-seven candidates, including the coalition leaders, like Abdul Aziz Hakim and Adel Abdul Mahdi. The 188 other names, the flier said, could not be published.

“Our apologies for not mentioning the names of all the candidates,” the flier said. “But the security situation is bad, and we have to keep them alive.”

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This is a final warning to all of those who plan to participate in the election. We vow to wash the streets of Baghdad with the voters’ blood. To those of you who think you can vote and then run away, we will shadow you and catch you, and we will cut off your heads and the heads of your children.

—Leaflet tossed from a black sedan in Mashtal, a neighborhood in eastern Baghdad, in the days before the nationwide election on January 30, 2005

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DAWN BROKE OVER empty streets. Soldiers and police stood behind their barricades, bracing themselves against the chill. On foot, I set out for the closest polling place, the Marjayoon Primary School, a mile away. The first Iraqis looked tense: a man and his son, not smiling, not waving back.

The night before, sitting around the dinner table, we’d set up an office pool to award the person who most closely predicted the day’s voter turnout. Everyone had put in fifty dollars. We talked about the situation—the violence, unrelenting, and the Sunnis, unforgiving. Eighteen percent? someone suggested. The Sunnis would boycott, but what of everyone else? Twenty-two? Public life was dead. The fish restaurants along the Tigris stood empty. Fifteen percent? Twenty-four?

As I walked into Karada, a mostly Shiite neighborhood, the streets were starting to fill. The Iraqis came with mixtures of pride and defiance on their faces. Husbands and wives and children were walking together, some of the men in coats and ties. Mortar shells were exploding nearby. An American armored car, as ungainly as a dinosaur, turned a corner.

I turned off the main drag in Karada toward the Marjayoon Primary School. People were waiting in silence in long lines between coils of barbed wire. They were shuffling inside, without a sound, as bombs exploded a block away.

An old man rolled up in a wheelchair. Then a group of women appeared, falling into line in their long black abayas. A pair of women walked out, one of them talking into her cell phone. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” she was saying into her phone.

Inside the school, a one-story, carpetless cement building, it was as quiet as a library. People were busy. Some signed their names to ledgers. Others stood inside one of the cardboard voting booths lined up against the wall, lost in concentration. Others were dipping their fingers in vials of purple ink.

A bomb exploded somewhere outside and the school vibrated. The Iraqis didn’t look up.

I spotted a young woman with eyes so bright they seemed to beam out of her head scarf. Her name was Batool al-Musawi. She was a physical therapist and a newlywed. Her parents stood by.

“I woke up this morning at 7 a.m., and I could hear the explosions outside,” Musawi told me. “And I threw the covers back over my head. I did not want to come. I was too afraid. It is so bad now. And then, hearing those explosions, it occurred to me—the insurgents are weak, they are afraid of democracy, they are losing. So I got my husband, and I got my parents, and we all came out and voted together.”

Outside, Ehab al-Bahir, a captain in the Iraqi army, commanded a group of soldiers guarding the school. He’d been there all night, fortifying the place against insurgent attacks. The mortar shells had arrived, as he had anticipated, and so did the voters, which he had not.

“I never expected so many people,” Captain Bahir said, looking down a line of voters outside the school. “I’m in charge of thirty polling places, and they are all saying the same thing. Hundreds of people are coming out to vote. One place said that there are already up to a thousand.”

As he spoke, Rashid Majid, age eighty, pushed his way past the guards and stepped through the schoolhouse doors. He was wearing a coat and tie, and his silvery hair was combed to perfection.

“Get out of my way,” Majid said, hurrying by. “I want to vote.”

I stepped outside. A group of children had started a game of pickup soccer, with their parents looking on. It was a scene I had not witnessed in many months. Up a little farther, I saw Adel Abdul Mahdi, the finance minister, walking, shaking hands—another astonishing sight. “Peace be upon you,” a man called to him.

I stepped inside Lebanon High School, another polling place. It was filled and it was quiet. The explosions were thundering outside. A middle-aged man looked up from a ledger, a finger pointed to the ceiling.

“Do you hear that, do you hear the bombs?” Hassan Jawad said, calling out to me over the thud of a shell. “We don’t care. Do you understand? We don’t care.”

“We all have to die,” Jawad said. “To die for this, well, at least I will be dying for something.”

And then he got back to work, guiding an Iraqi woman’s hand to the ballot box.

A FEW MILES AWAY, a woman stepped from the voting booth at Yarmouk Elementary School, named for the largely Sunni neighborhood where it was located. Yarmouk was slipping fast, but some of the Sunnis were still coming out to vote. Her name was Bushra Saadi. Like Batool al-Musawi, the young Shiite woman, Saadi covered her hair with a scarf tightly wrapped. But she was older than Musawi and carried herself with greater dignity. Her face was drawn, and her eyes looked as hard as little diamonds. Her neighbors shuffled past her to go inside.

Why vote at all? I asked Saadi. Why not just stay home?

She shot me a withering look.

“I voted in order to prevent my country from being destroyed by its enemies,” she said. She spoke English without an accent.

What enemies? I asked Saadi. What enemies are you referring to?

She began to tremble.

“You—you destroyed our country,” Saadi said. “The Americans, the British. I am sorry to be impolite. But you destroyed our country, and you called it democracy.”

“Democracy,” she said. “It is just talking.”

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