Global Policy Forum

Many Iraqis Losing Hope That Politics


By Robert F. Worth

New York Times
March 17, 2005

Haithm Ali, a wiry blacksmith, was welding an iron gate in his shop in Sadr City, the vast Shiite slum in northeastern Baghdad, when he was asked for his thoughts about the country's new national assembly. Mr. Ali's face broke into a bitter smile. "I don't expect any government to be formed," he said, his welding glasses pushed up over his forehead. "And they won't find any solutions to the situation we find ourselves in."

Nothing like a scientific poll is possible yet in Iraq. But as the national assembly's first brief meeting came and went, broadcast into thousands of Iraqi homes on television, a sampling of street opinion in two Iraqi cities found a widespread dismay and even anger that the elections have not yet translated into a new government. The interviews - which included members of Iraq's major religious and ethnic groups - indicated in particular a striking sense of disillusionment among Shiites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's population but were brutally suppressed under the rule of Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Ali said he had traveled a long road of disappointment since the election on Jan. 30. On that day, like many Iraqis, especially Shiites, he risked his life to vote and felt a thrilling surge of excitement about his country's future. Since then, with Iraq's leading political groups still haggling over how to share power and suicide bombers striking almost every day, he - again, like many others - has lapsed back into cynicism. "The president and cabinet won't do anything for this neighborhood," Mr. Ali said, sweeping an arm toward the sewage-flooded streets around him. "They are only looking out for their own interests."

Encouraged by their religious leaders, Shiites turned out in extraordinary numbers to vote in January, especially in the more peaceful southern part of country. The United Iraqi Alliance won 140 of the assembly's 275 seats, a success that prompted joyous street celebrations in Sadr City and other Shiite areas. But the alliance's leaders have been locked in difficult negotiations with Kurdish leaders, who have refused to join a governing coalition unless Kurdish property rights are restored in the northern city of Kirkuk and they are allowed to retain their militia, called the pesh merga. The interviews suggested a hardening of the sectarian divisions that were visible in the election.

"All the delays are because of the Kurds," said Shakur Farhan, a construction worker in Sadr City. "They want federalism, they want oil, they want their power. We want a unified Iraq; the Kurds want their own state." Kurds, meanwhile, generally saw themselves as citizens of the separate country of Kurdistan and judged the talks a waste of time. They often faulted their leaders for even trying to join in an Iraqi government. Ala Mahdi, a 24 year-old law student in the northern city of Sulaimaniya, said the stalled talks were pointless.

"I would prefer that Barzani and Talabani come back to Kurdistan and tell everybody we don't want to be part of Iraq," said Mr. Mahdi, referring to the leaders of the two major Kurdish political parties, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani. A number of Sunnis were also unimpressed by the national assembly, dismissing its members as American stooges and self-interested hacks.

Some Shiites said their patience had worn thin. "We're fed up with the situation," said Ahmad Waresh, a barber in Sadr City who, like most in the heavily Shiite area, voted for the United Iraqi Alliance. "It's been a long time and we're still waiting for something to change." He recited a litany of problems: water, sewage, electricity, street repair. After the elections, he said, he thought having Shiites in power would make a difference, but it has not. Several of his neighbors, crowding into his shop, pointed out that they could not even watch the national assembly's meeting on television, because the power was out.

All those interviewed agreed that the continuing violence here meant that the assembly must overcome its own divisions quickly. "We have bloodshed going on, and the politicians are busy with ministries," said Abu Bakr Walid, a 25-year-old Sunni architecture student who lives in the Adhamiya neighborhood of Baghdad. "It's like they're playing Monopoly."

Muhammad Jassim, 26, who was sitting alone in his tiny one-room photography studio in Sadr City, surrounded by portraits of young men and happy families, said: "The politicians should stop thinking about who gets what post, and look at the people's needs. We are really suffering; they need to unify and help us." And Umm Dhia, a tiny, 73 year-old fortune teller walking home through the streets of Adhamiya, said: "Those politicians are looking for positions. Once they won seats, they forgot the Iraqis and the miseries of the people."

Some Iraqis were less harsh. "I am still optimistic that they will form a good government," said Hamid Alwash, 37, a Shiite butcher in Baghdad's main shopping district, Karada, as he stood in his shop with a dozen cow and lamb carcasses hanging around him. Mr. Alwash said he was proud to have voted for the leading Shiite group, known as the United Iraqi Alliance. An image of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the revered, white-bearded Shiite cleric who helped form the alliance, gazed out on the bloodstained wooden butcher blocks.

Mr. Alwash was unable to watch the assembly's meeting, but not because of the lack of power. His television was stolen on election day, he said. Some who did watch the 90-minute session seemed dismayed. "It was like watching a play; it was as if someone had assigned them to say it," said Jabbar Sattar, who sells car parts and accessories in Karada. "You didn't get the feeling they really want to achieve their goals."

For some other Iraqis, a familiar enemy still lurks behind all these persisting divisions: America. "No one thinks about what the Iraq people need," said Walid Mohammad, 63, the imam of Al Sadiq mosque in Baghdad. "They all work for the occupier. Whatever America wants, that is what will happen in the end."

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