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The Capital of Empty Streets

Baghdad Feels Like a City Preparing for War

by PATRICK COCKBURN

Baghdad.

In the hours before tomorrow’s election, Baghdad feels like a city preparing for war. American helicopters roar noisily overhead just above the roof- tops, setting off car alarms. Iraqi police nervously finger their assault rifles. Most people are taking no risks and stay at home, so streets are eerily empty.

The government’s security measures for the election sound impressive. The Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Saleh, announced that the military adviser to the most-wanted Islamic militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an Iraqi named Anad Mohammed Qais, had been arrested. The National Security minister said two of the Jordanian militant’s other aides had been captured, including his alleged chief of operations in Baghdad. There was, however, scepticism about the claims coming on the eve of polling.

As Iraqis outside the country began voting yesterday, the country’s land borders were closed and travel between Iraq’s 18 provinces was banned. A curfew is in force from 7pm to 6am. The interior ministry has issued contradictory and confusing instructions about its ban on cars tomorrow. But given that the US troops and Iraqi security forces are trigger-happy at the best of times, most Iraqis will err on the side of caution and keep off the streets.

Despite the security measures, insurgents killed 10 Iraqis and five US troops yesterday. In southern Baghdad, a car bomb exploded next to a police station, killing four civilians. A second bomb detonated nearby, close to a school that will be used as a polling station. In the western city of Ramadi, a guerrilla stronghold, six Iraqi soldiers were killed in ambushes.

The US military said a soldier was shot dead in northern Baghdad. A roadside bomb killed another and wounded two others in the south of the capital, and later another bomb killed three US soldiers in western Baghdad. A Kiowa observation helicopter crashed in southwest Baghdad, but there was no immediate information on casualties.

One group of people who are refusing to go home are the drivers of cars stuck in queues, sometimes as long as two miles, waiting to buy petrol. "I have been waiting in my car since 4.30pm yesterday and I have not moved a metre," said Abu Ali Anwar. He opened the door of his car to show the heap of blankets on which he had been sleeping overnight.

He added furiously: "We are not moving because the police at the petrol station are taking bribes of 25,000 dinars (£9) to let other drivers jump the queue."

Most Iraqis talk more about the problems of survival than the election. "We are suffering from many crises: lack of food, electricity and fuel," Mr Anwar said. "It was bad enough under Saddam but now it is 10 times worse. I graduated from college but I have to work as a taxi driver and I do not have enough money even to buy shoes."

Several Iraqis interviewed yesterday said that they saw the election as a movie directed by the Americans to impress the outside world. "It is like a film," said Abu Draid, an unemployed carpenter. "It is the Americans who will control the next government whatever happens."

Not everybody agrees. In Jadriyah district a group of Shia Muslim men were unloading bottles of gas, which Iraqis use for cooking, from a battered pick-up. Their mood was bitter and cynical. They pointed out that the bottles which once sold for the equivalent of 16p now cost more than £3. But several said they did not think the election was a waste of time and they would vote for the Shia slate of candidates put together under the auspices of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Probably a majority of Iraqis think that the elections are a step forward but few believe it will solve the permanent crisis in which they live. The insurgents denounce the election as a US plot to legitimise the government, but in reality Washington had long rejected elections, fearing that it would bring the Shias to power under clerical leaders.

It was only as guerrilla attacks in Sunni districts escalated at the end of 2003 that the US realised that direct American rule was impossible. It could not afford to alienate the Shias as well as the Sunnis. The American administration had to agree to Ayatollah Sistani’s demand for an election in which the Shias hope to show that they are the majority.

The election therefore serves as a referendum in which the Shias demonstrate their strength. But Iyad Allawi has done better than might have been expected given the state of the country, because he is presenting himself as a Shia secular candidate. In Baghdad and Basra in particular, the clerical parties are not popular. Moderate Sunnis may also be attracted by Mr Allawi’s Baathist past.

All the Iraqis we spoke to in the street yesterday blamed the US for their troubles, voters and non-voters, Sunnis and Shias alike. Even Mr Allawi’s party website in Arabic said that that the interim Prime Minister wanted a staged withdrawal of the US forces. When the Americans protested he rapidly backtracked, giving interviews in English saying they should stay.

British troops have killed three Shia militia fighters in southern Iraq. An Italian soldier was shot dead during a series of attacks that culminated in the deaths of three militiamen during an intensive exchange of fire with the British soldiers.