On Iraq’s first provincial elections since 2005, Baghdad is nearly car free. The government enforced a vehicle curfew for the entire day to prevent car bombs at the polls. For the first time, I can hear the birds singing in the palm trees that stand over the buildings, their chirps occasionally blocked by the sound of jets or low flying American helicopters. In Jadiriya, kids ride bicycles down the streets. Young men lounge on the medians. Boys chase soccer balls down major thoroughfares, moving bricks set as goal markers whenever government, media, or the occasional American military vehicles come through. Iraqi soldiers and National police sit idly in the sun on nearly every block.
In Karada, people walk through outdoor metal detectors surrounded by police to enter a polling station and cast their votes. When I get there, at around 10 am, there are more journalists than voters. The Iraqi government has only permitted cameras in five polling stations in the city. In each polling room, cameramen cram into a corner and photographers slink along the floor to capture people casting their ballots. Some Iraqis, trained by the last elections how to grab the media’s attention, raise their purple stained fingers to be mobbed by photographers, shutters ablaze.
An old woman enters a cardboard voting booth with her ballot that unfolds to an unwieldy list of parties. Her son is by her side to do the reading. In Baghdad, a province of its own, people are choosing between 2,400 candidates to fill 57 seats. Skeptics say many of the candidates have no clue about local politics but are motivated by the spoils that corruption can bring. The hope for wealth in Iraqi politics isn’t baseless—Transparency International says the country is the third most corrupt in the world after Somalia and Burma.
I ask 23-year-old, Amir Hassan, a security worker, his thoughts on the elections. “We want more safety. The Iraqi people are tired and we want to rest.”
At dusk, I walk out of my hotel to enjoy the tranquil day and buy some fresh bread. I ask the baker whether the election means that Bush was successful with his mission in Iraq. “No, Bush has nothing to do with this,” he says. “Seyyid al-Sistani told us to vote, so we voted,” he said, referring to the powerful Shia Ayatollah in Iraq. “We do what he tells us to do.”
Shane Bauer is a freelance journalist and photographer based in the Middle East, where he has spent much of the past six years. He is a correspondent for New America Media and his writing and photography has been published in the US, UK, Middle East, and Canada.