Analysts of theater often speak of a necessary "suspension of disbelief" on the part of spectators that permits those watching to respond "as if" what they are watching is real, at some level.  --  Something similar is being demanded of observers in the political realm this month, as they are invited to regard the simulacrum of democracy in Iraq as if it were a real election.  --  Dexter Filkins of the New York Times reported Sunday that "candidates are often too terrified to say their names" while campaigning.  --  "Instead of holding rallies, they meet voters in secret, if they meet them at all. Instead of canvassing for votes, they fend off death threats."  --  This is not true in the north and the south, "but in much of the center and the northwest, including two of the country's three largest cities, Baghdad and Mosul, candidates reveal themselves only at great personal risk."  --  For another discussion of the difficulties of campaigning, see on this web site a translation of the last article written by French journalist Florence Aubenas for LibĂ©ration before she was kidnapped. ...


Middle East

By Dexter Filkins

New York Times
January 16, 2005
Page A01

BAGHDAD -- The threat of death hung so heavily over the election rally, held this week on the fifth floor of the General Factory for Vegetable Oil, that the speakers refused to say whether they were candidates at all.

"Too dangerous," said Hussein Ali, who solicited votes for the United Iraqi Alliance, a party fielding dozens of candidates for the elections here. "It's a secret."

And then Mr. Ali and his colleagues left, escorted by men with guns.

So goes the election campaign unfolding across Iraq, a country simultaneously set to embark on an American-backed political experiment while writhing under a guerrilla insurgency dead set on disrupting the experiment.

With only two weeks to go to before the vote, scheduled for Jan. 30, guerrillas have stepped up their attacks and driven most candidates deep indoors, and on Saturday, the authorities said they would restrict traffic and set up cordons around polling places on election day.

A result, in large swaths of the country, is a campaign in the shadows, where candidates are often too terrified to say their names. Instead of holding rallies, they meet voters in secret, if they meet them at all. Instead of canvassing for votes, they fend off death threats.

Public campaigning is still possible in much of southern Iraq and in the Kurdish areas to the far northeast, where the threat of violence does not loom so large.

But in much of the center and the northwest, including two of the country's three largest cities, Baghdad and Mosul, candidates reveal themselves only at great personal risk.

Of the 7,471 people who have filed to run, only a handful outside the relatively safe Kurdish areas have publicly identified themselves. The locations for the 5,776 polling places have not been announced, lest they become targets for attacks.

The predicament for candidates was spelled out on a flier passed around town by the United Iraqi Alliance. The flier listed the names of 37 candidates for the national assembly. The 188 others, 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."

Some political leaders here say they are not much bothered by the candidates' lack of visibility; they point out that Iraqis will be voting for political parties, not individual candidates.

Each party has a list of candidates and will be given seats in proportion to the number of votes it receives. At this rudimentary stage of democracy, some say, it is remarkable enough that the Iraqis are voting at all.

"This will be an election of constituencies, not of programs like you have in America," said Adil Abdul Mahdi, the finance minister and a candidate in the United Iraqi Alliance. "The Iraqis know their people. They know who they are voting for."

But the larger issue, for many political leaders, is that the guerrilla assault to scuttle the elections has truncated political discourse and, as a result, the heart of the elections itself. If candidates can't campaign, they can't debate, and if they can't debate, voters will hardly be in a position to chart their country's destiny.

"An election is not just putting a piece of a paper in a box; it's a whole process," said Nasir Chaderji, chairman of the National Democratic Party, with 48 candidates. "We don't have that here. Candidates can't campaign because of the security situation.

"I call it the secret election."

Raja al-Khuzai, a candidate for the assembly who has joined a slate headed by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, spends nearly all of her time inside Dr. Allawi's heavily fortified compound, surrounded by armed guards. Instead of campaigning, she sends volunteers into the streets to talk to voters on her behalf.

"They come back and tell me the vision of the people," Dr. Khuzai said.

Dr. Khuzai knows well the dangers facing Iraqis trying to build a new democratic order; two of her colleagues on the Iraqi Governing Council, which has since been disbanded, were killed. On Dec. 24, American soldiers found the broken and bullet-riddled body of a relative, Wijdan al-Khuzai, also a candidate.

Rawaf Abdul Razak, a candidate for the National Democratic Party, awoke one morning to find a slip of paper tucked into the front gate of his Baghdad home.

"The game is over," the handwritten note said. "If you do not go back to your God honestly and stop being a traitor to your country, then we will send you to hell."

Mr. Razak is still a candidate, but he does not campaign in public anymore.

The violence makes for an election campaign that seems curiously removed from the country where it is taking place -- and sometimes literally removed. The wealthier candidates, like Dr. Allawi, broadcast television advertisements trumpeting their candidacies. Others hold news conferences inside compounds fortified by sandbags and blast walls.

Dr. Khuzai recently went door to door looking for supporters in an Iraqi neighborhood in Amman, Jordan. "I can't do that in Iraq," she said.

As a result, the most ubiquitous form of political communication is the campaign poster; there are thousands. In the capital, they compete for space on nearly every wall.

"The Right Choice for a Bright Future," reads one poster for the United Iraqi Alliance.

"Islam Is Our Culture, Modernity Is Our Way, Renewal Is Our Goal," reads one for the Islamic Democratic Party.

Ordinary campaign events here are so rare, and new, Iraqis often do not know how to react when they see one. When workers for the Iraqi Communist Party drove a caravan with loudspeakers into Shoula, a neighborhood in northern Baghdad, on Friday, many of the residents looked on dumbfounded, with their mouths agape.

"We will lift up the poor!" the young Communist shouted into the bullhorn.

Yet when the caravan stopped and the volunteers began passing out leaflets, a throng of Iraqis crowded around. They did not exhibit much knowledge of individual candidates or the parties' platforms, but they well understood that an election was only two weeks away.

"Of course we know what democracy is," said Nadi Kareem, a 60-year-old shopkeeper, who had grasped one of the Communist brochures. "We've been waiting 35 years for it."

The candidates themselves, even the ones too afraid to go out, sense the stakes as well. The Communists, for instance, now espousing free elections and religious tolerance, are among the few Iraqi parties that send candidates into the streets. Two of its members have been gunned down in the past month.

"No one is going to hand you democracy on a silver platter; you have to fight for it," said Jasim al-Helfi, a Communist candidate for the assembly. "In a democracy, the candidates have to go into the streets and meet the people."

The insurgency has not stopped campaigning everywhere. In much of southern Iraq, where the Shiites dominate and the insurgency has ebbed, candidates can meet voters face-to-face, though most do so only with armed guards at their side.

Earlier this week, a group of five assembly candidates led by Ahmad Chalabi drove from Baghdad to Mushkhab, about 100 miles to the south, to meet the leaders of a local tribe. To get there, Mr. Chalabi and his entourage traveled with 50 armed guards, who stopped traffic on highways when it got in the way and even commandeered a gas station at gunpoint when their vehicles ran low on fuel.

Mr. Chalabi, who is a candidate for the United Iraqi Alliance, arrived to a warm welcome. He met with the tribal leaders inside a mudhif, a traditional meeting hall made of dried reeds plucked from the Euphrates River. He sat cross-legged with the tribal chiefs, dined on a lunch of lamb and rice, then rose to give a speech.

"The Americans came and pushed Saddam out, but they did not liberate the country," Mr. Chalabi said. "The Iraqi people will liberate the country; they will build the country."

The tribal leaders, in turn, promised their support, as well as the support of everyone in their tribe, the Fatla. "Our people will vote the way we tell them to vote," said Imad Faroun, a Fatla tribal leader.

Many Iraqi Shiites say they will vote for the United Iraqi Alliance, the coalition of Shiite parties brought together by the religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. With Ayatollah Sistani's tacit endorsement -- his gaunt, severe visage adorns the alliance's placards -- many Shiites say they feel a religious obligation to vote for the Shiite alliance.

"If this party has been approved by Sistani, then I will support it," said Adnan Khazel, a 23-year-old worker at the vegetable oil factory.

The other emotion that accompanies many of the campaign events here, along with the fear of violence, is the memory of hard times, not just of Mr. Hussein, but also of the uncertainty since the American invasion and the intensifying guerrilla war.

The rallies in Mushkhab and at the factory in Baghdad were both accompanied by poetry readings, mournful verse about travails past.

"Iraq, my soul, my wounds are still not healed," the reader told his fellow countrymen at the oil factory. "What a pity that in this land where we were masters, we have now become the slaves."