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Last Updated: Friday, 28 January, 2005, 00:35 GMT
Election in the shadow of the gun
Ben Brown
By Ben Brown
BBC correspondent in Basra

The election may be stillborn in some parts of Iraq, but in Basra it's alive and kicking.

Festooned all around Iraq's second city there are posters and banners, proclaiming the virtues of a bewildering array of political groups.

Iraqi youngsters displays an election pamphlet watched by a British soldier on patrol in the southern Iraqi city of Basra
Iraqis in Basra are determined to have their voices heard

The Shia people - long oppressed by Saddam Hussein - seem to be relishing the opportunity to vote on Sunday.

Further north, many Sunnis may not want to vote or be too terrified to do so.

But here in the south of Iraq, most citizens of voting age have registered and turnout is expected to be very high.

Everyone you talk to is looking forward to what they believe will be a fresh start for Iraq.

Seeking answers

Examples? An 87-year-old grandmother still determined that she will get to her local polling station - even if she has to be carried there.

And a pregnant woman who is frightened she'll be attacked on her way to vote, but who says she must cast her ballot for the sake of her unborn baby.

On Basra's Two Rivers radio station, the lines are buzzing on an election phone-in show.

I believe people will vote because this is our crossroads
Imad al Hamdawi, Iraqi candidate

The list of demands from voters is long, according to Two Rivers presenter, Anwar al Jebor.

"We want you to do something about job opportunities," they tell their candidates. "We want you to stop the corruption, we want electricity, we want water."

Based on polling research, she predicts a turnout of something like 90%.

'Guest bombers'

All parties are urging people to exercise their new-found democratic right - whoever they vote for.

An Iraqi boy walks past an election poster supporting Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in Basra
Looking to the future: but Iraq's Iyad Allawi has said he cannot guarantee election security

Imad al Hamdawi, one of some 7,000 candidates around the country, tells me passionately: "My message to voters and candidates alike is to save Iraq. We're not going to be intimidated by insurgents. If we are going to move forward, we have to be brave. I believe people will vote because this is our crossroads."

But if the Shia people do vote in large numbers, that will bring its own problems for the security forces in and around Basra.

Long queues at polling stations will be potential targets for insurgents, determined to turn Sunday's poll into a day of violence and bloodshed.

The British army fear there may be what they call "guest bombers" lurking in the city: Sunni militants who have managed to travel down here, and who've been lying in wait until election day.

Secret candidate

"We've just got to keep on our toes over the next few days," says Lt Col Phil Lewis, commanding officer of the Duke of Wellington's battle group in Basra.

"Undoubtedly there are people out there who are determined to stop people going through the democratic process here.

An identity card for an election monitor for the Communist Party, is filled out at the headquarters of the Independent Election Commission of Iraq in Basra.
In Basra, most citizens of voting age have already registered

"But for Iraqis, this is their opportunity to get out there and vote. This is their first real chance to express their democratic right. I'd be very surprised if people don't turn out in their hordes."

At Basra's cramped election headquarters, the various candidates mingle somewhat nervously.

One checks his pistol, then tucks it into his belt. He believes it is a vital necessity.

After all, voters and candidates alike have been threatened with murder just for taking part in Sunday's poll.

One candidate - running for the royalist party - explains to me that his name will not appear on the ballot paper.

Instead he will just be a number - 133.

It is safer that way, he says. "I've only told my family and a few friends that I'm standing."

It gives a whole new meaning to the idea of a secret ballot, but this is an election being fought in the shadow of the gun and the suicide bomber.

Around the world people may vote with barely a second thought, but in Iraq on Sunday it will take a special act of courage just to go near a polling station.




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