By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - For years, the oil-rich region of Kirkuk has been on everybody's radar in Iraq, given the ongoing tug-of-war over its future between Arabs and Kurds. This week, however, Kirkuk attracted plenty of attention for a very different reason.
The Police Department came out with a statement calling for orderly traffic, noting that car accidents were being recorded at an interval of one per hour due to a poster plastered all over the city's walls that showed an attractive woman who is running for the parliamentary elections scheduled for March 7.
The Iraqi political scene is riddled with small trivial stories like these, which show the elections in a humanistic manner very different from the one seen in mainstream Iraqi media. Two of the candidates running for parliament, for example, are former football (soccer) champions Karim Saddam and Ahmad Radi, who mesmerized Iraqis in the 1980s with their football skills. They are now challenging each other once again, this time not for goals and trophies, but for a parliamentary seat in Baghdad.
In Karbala, a massive turnout of poor people showed up at a rally for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, breaking through security to present him with petitions, knowing that no time is better for ordinary Iraqis to reach out directly to top officials - and have all of their requests answered immediately.
Also last week, during a live television debate between Abbas al-Bayati, a senior member of the prime minister's coalition, and Sabah al-Saidi, a Maliki opponent, yet another surprise took place. Just as the program was coming to an end, Saidi took out a handgun - sending shivers down the spine of all those present at the studio - saying he bought it at one of the old markets of Baghdad for US$3,000.
"Why such an astronomical number?" he asked, then pointed to an inscription saying: "Gift of the prime minister," saying that Maliki was dishing out this "gift" to tribal leaders left-and-right to win their votes in the upcoming elections. Saidi noted that this was morally wrong - given that it encouraged militarization of society, reminding of a long-observed habit by Saddam Hussein, who used to give out weapons as gifts to his visitors.
Such an act, Saidi added, makes the prime minister look silly, shedding serious doubt on all government rhetoric asking Iraqis to lay down their arms and keep them under the watchful eye of the state. It also raised questions about where Maliki got the money to purchase all of these weapons, pointing out that certainly Maliki's state salary did not allow for such extravagance.
Saidi, it must be noted, is a member of the Fadila Party, a one-time ally of the prime minister who turned against him and repeatedly called for the resignation of his minister of commerce and oil on allegations of corruption.
Apart from these small stories, the situation remains very tense on the Iraqi street. Sunni heavyweight Saleh al-Mutlak has announced that 75 members of his National Dialogue Front will not be running for office, that they are boycotting the elections in protest at the disqualification of Mutlak by an election body. If the disqualification and boycott stand, it could lead to major disturbances in March that might lead to the postponement of the entire elections.
Meanwhile, the results of a government-mandated poll were released last week. The National Media Center, which reports to the Prime Minister's Office, noted that Maliki's State of Law Alliance (SoL) was projected to get the lion's share of seats - an expected 29.2% of the entire 325-seat parliament, meaning no less than 30% of the seats.
According to the report, the Iraqi National List of ex-prime minister Iyad Allawi would take about 22%, while the Kurdistan Alliance, which has the two largest Kurdish parties in parliament, would take no more than 10% of the vote, although in 2005 they had an impressive 21% (a total of 53 seats). The last piece of information revealed in the poll - which looks as if it has Maliki's fingerprints all over it - was that the Iraqi Accordance Front (the largest Sunni party) would get no more than 2.7% of the upcoming parliament.
Many Iraqis are debating the authenticity of these results, claiming that due to rising discontent with the prime minister it is close to impossible for him to come out with such a clear majority. Bombings in August, October and December 2009 shattered whatever faith many Iraqis had in Maliki.
Rising regional discontent with Maliki's behavior can clearly be felt in Saudi Arabia and Syria and the Sunni street in Iraq is furious with Maliki for having answered none of their demands since coming to power in 2006.
Also, the government-mandated report was clearly taking sides when it reported a mere 2.7% win for the Accordance Front, which in the absence of Mutlak's bloc is effectively the number one Sunni front.
This is perhaps what Maliki wants to believe, very aware, however, that in 2009 the Sunnis voted in large numbers and managed to restore their grip on the provinces, not through bullets but through ballots. Many current politicians are determined to make sure that such a Sunni turnout does not happen in March.
Interior Minister Jawad Boulani, another former Maliki ally who is now heading his own list and competing with the prime minister for votes, bluntly says he will not give those "who have had their turn in government" a chance to return to power in Baghdad.
According to the poll, voter turnout will be 65% for Shi'ites and 58% for Sunnis, with an overall turnout of 80% of eligible voters. That, too, is hard to believe, given rising Sunni anger over how Sunni candidates are being treated in the pre-election period.
Also, it noted that 47% of Iraqis supported the disqualification of 456 candidates, mainly Sunnis, accused of having ties to the disbanded and outlawed Ba'ath Party.