- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s first free election on Sunday will be a day both of testing and of triumph for the corps of independent journalists that has rushed into the democratic space created by Saddam Hussein’s fall.

More than 200 newspapers and a handful of TV and radio stations have played a critical role in the campaign, offering the only access to voters for many candidates who dare not go out in person because of the insurgency.

That campaign continued yesterday, even as the first votes were scheduled to be cast by overseas Iraqis, more than a quarter-million of whom are registered to vote over three days beginning today.

Doing their best to depress the turnout, terrorists bent on wrecking the election killed a total of 11 Iraqis and a U.S. Marine and bombed polling stations across Iraq’s Sunni heartland.

It has been dangerous for the journalists too: Terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi has branded reporters as U.S. collaborators, and several have been killed in the past months. One young reporter for a local newspaper said he never travels without a gun.

“It is very dangerous, because a journalist can get killed anytime,” said television anchorman Ahmed al-Hamdani, 24, who works for the Kurdish-owned Al Hurriya channel.

Top candidates heading electoral lists in Sunday’s vote for a new parliament — such as Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite; President Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, a Sunni; Ibrahim Jaafari of the Islamic Daawa Party; and Sunni figure Adnan Pachachi — all have taken to the airwaves to get their messages out.

Those Iraqis fortunate enough to own a television set — about 10 percent of the public according to a 2003 survey — have been treated to a robust airing of the issues as interviewers go after the candidates with tough questions during talk shows and debates.

Mr. al-Hamdani, a budding actor when Saddam was in power, said he loves challenging the politicians and that the Iraqi people were enjoying the coverage. “It’s new, it’s very good,” he said, smiling.

But many have paid a dire price for that opportunity.

“In my station, they killed my friend Dina, a female journalist,” Mr. al-Hamdani said. “I was in my car when I heard gunfire and when I got out of the car I saw her on the ground,” he said, combing both hands back through his hair.

“Half her face was missing. I carried Dina in my arms and go into hospital, and they say Dina is dead,” he said. Angry, he went to talk to people in the predominantly Sunni area of Baghdad called Aramiya to ask why they had killed his colleague.

“They say, this woman work with U.S. army. They say shut your mouth, get in your car, or we will kill you.”

More could die on Sunday, as reporters are being asked not only to cover the voting for their employers but also to serve as an independent monitoring force.

Farid Ayar, the spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, said journalists have been asked to report back to the commission on any irregularities they observe at polling places around the country.

Serious doubts remain about how many Iraqis will turn out to vote in the face of an unremitting campaign of intimidation. But whatever the outcome, most Iraqi journalists are proud of the role they have played.

“The journalist makes the story. The danger is not in the problem covered, because the problem will be gone, but in the telling of it,” said a 28-year-old reporter who asked that his name not be used.

On the air and in the newspaper pages, the political debates have focused on security, democracy and rebuilding the country — but there have been few concrete proposals on how all this will be achieved.

Both at the national and regional level, candidates have been preoccupied with the role that American forces should play in their country, though there is little disagreement. Almost all say they are anxious for the Americans to leave — but only after security is established.

Mr. Allawi was quoted as telling a gathering of religious and provincial leaders during a visit to Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit on Wednesday that he did not want to extend the stay of the American troops.

“But,” said Abdullah Hussein, deputy governor of Iraq’s northern Sallahadin province, “with the current situation, he said he cannot ask for, or permit, the withdrawal of U.S. troops because it would affect the fate of the whole country.”

Mr. Hussein — a former officer in Saddam’s military and now a candidate for provincial office — told reporters he didn’t like having foreign forces in Iraq but that the country couldn’t do without them.

“I followed my duties as an officer and I fought the American troops until the last day of my service, but after the fall of the regime, the chaotic situation was so aggressive [it] necessitated the presence of the multinational force,” he said.

“And when we can really run ourselves completely, I will be the first to ask the foreign troops to leave Iraq, and I have told the coalition forces that I will be the first to fight you if you do not respond to the request of a sovereign government of Iraq.”

One young woman in Baghdad said she enjoyed seeing the candidates present their views and comparing the way they carried themselves. But others were less impressed.

Of the more than 100 party slates, each with anywhere from 15 to 150 names, “people only know the first one, two or four,” said one older Iraqi man on the street, who asked that his name not be used.

“This is the first secret election in history, because you have to elect people you don’t know,” he said.

“I am a Sunni, I will not be voting, and what I hear from my neighbors, more than 80 percent will not be voting, not because they are afraid but because they don’t believe in this voting — it is a picture made by the Americans.”

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