Shahbandar Cafe still stands, a testament to the resilience of the country and its capital, Baghdad, even if so much here has changed.
Rebuilt after a March 2007 bombing, its blue columns are now brown and its walls an undefiled tan brick. Pictures of the last king, Faisal II, executed in a republican revolution, share space with portraits of the owner's four sons and grandson, killed in a sectarian war. Even the locale, forever Shahbandar to its denizens, a century-old establishment once the city's intellectual nexus, bears a new name: Martyrs' Cafe.
As Iraq prepares to vote Saturday in its first election since 2005, the conversation has changed, too. The words of the cafe-goers, laced with proverbs and poetry, illustrate what may stand as the legacy of an election that will begin shaping a new political landscape, as the Obama administration prepares to withdraw U.S. troops.
In a country long bedeviled by questions of legitimacy -- over the American presence, the constitution, a de facto sectarian and ethnic system, and the excesses of security forces of dubious loyalty -- elections have now won an enthusiastic if grudging fealty, emerging as a true arena for contest in which nearly every sect, ethnicity and tribe in the country has staked its future.
In 2005, there was a chorus of agreement in Shahbandar. Customer after customer, each wearing a frayed jacket and sipping a cup of tea, insisted that the election itself was more important than the choice of candidates. The vote, simply by taking place, would mark the end of one Iraq.
"Without elections, there will be tyranny," Kadhim Hassan, a writer, said then.
"There's real competition this time around," Jassim Ismail, a retired teacher, said Thursday. "We're firing a bullet of mercy today at what's happened in the past."
Saturday's vote marks perhaps the most competitive election in the country's history, as Iraqis choose the leadership of 14 of 18 provinces. Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the last vote, delivering Shiites and Kurds disproportionate power in some provinces, including Baghdad, Diyala and Nineveh. In predominantly Shiite southern Iraq and Sunni western Iraq, power coalesced around ostensibly religious parties, building on clandestine organizations in exile, underground networks under Saddam Hussein, support from Iran and other neighbors, and, occasionally, the end of a militiaman's gun.
By 2006, internecine war had erupted, quieting only last year.
In this election, every incumbent party faces spirited opposition. In all, more than 14,400 candidates on 400 lists will vie for 440 seats on the provincial councils. The results will undoubtedly lead to a country that is more representative but also more fractious, and in that, maybe more turbulent.
In Anbar province, the region of western Iraq that was once the most lethal for the U.S. military, tribal figures and former insurgents are seeking to end the monopoly on power held by the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the few Sunni groups that participated in the 2005 election. To ensure its survival, the party has tried to forge coalitions with those same tribes.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, forgoing the slogans of his Islamist past for a platform of law and order, is trying to curb the power of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, still one of the most ardently sectarian groups. It controls four of nine provinces in Iraq's predominantly Shiite south and insists it will capture at least as many this time.
Competing with both of them are followers of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose lieutenants have urged their constituents to vote for two lists of nominally independent candidates.
Sunni Arab parties are seeking to mirror their constituents' numbers in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, where Kurds and Shiites captured a majority in 2005, when Sunni Arabs boycotted. They are seeking the same redress in Nineveh province in northern Iraq, the country's most dangerous region, where Kurds hold 31 of 37 seats.
Across the country, slogans declare support for independents and intellectuals. Some secular parties, among them the Iraqiya list of former prime minister Ayad Allawi, are trying to build on a current of disgust, pronounced most loudly in cities, with the corruption-addled record of Islamist parties in southern and western Iraq. They hew to a narrative often heard and sometimes believed: The country's sectarianism will pass.
The elections are by no means a panacea. In some ways, they have revealed a landscape perhaps more precarious than the one the United States inherited in 2003. Tribes, with archaic traditions, have become kingmakers, and Islamist parties, despite their unpopularity, have proved a singular ability to mobilize resources and followers. Some worry about the onset of warlords. Others worry about the Kurdish-Arab frontier, where borders with an autonomous Kurdish region have yet to be drawn. In the province around the disputed city of Kirkuk, the vote has been postponed indefinitely.
The problems ahead remind some of the line by Mutanabi, a 10th-century poet, as haughty as he was brilliant, who gave his name to the street along Shahbandar Cafe.
"Not all that a man longs for is within his reach. Gusts of wind can blow against the desires of ships' crews," goes the verse, known by heart by many here.
Dragging on a water pipe, Ismail, the retired teacher, shook his head and quoted another line, from a more recent work by Abul Qasim al-Shabi, a Tunisian poet.
"If the people one day decide to seek life, fate must respond," he recited from the bench he occupies every morning. "Night must clear, and the chains must break."
"With all due respect to Mutanabi, of course," Ismail said. "But if we stay mired in the past, our wounds won't heal and we can't take a step forward."
"Mkhayareen," added Naji Mahmoud, a 60-year-old retiree, "mu msayareen."
Translated very loosely, it means the choice is ours.
The 2007 explosion that tore through the warren of bookstores along Mutanabi Street devastated Shahbandar Cafe, itself an artifact of a more stately Baghdad. The street was rebuilt, a somewhat kitschy arcade of columns and terraces, inspired by a Levantine ethos and imbued with a Stalinist aesthetic. The cafe fared better, with its vaulted ceilings. New furniture of leather and wood occupies the places of the old samovars and antique brass decanters. Brick walls are adorned with pictures of Ottoman pashas, King Faisal and his heirs and a pontoon bridge across the Tigris in 1916.
"Iraq is like a carpet that was torn," Ismail said, sitting under them. "Now we're mending it. If we can put each thread back in place, the artistry of its design can return."
Ahmed Azz al-Din, a 33-year-old printer, interrupted.
"It won't look the way it looked before," he said.
Azz al-Din and others complained of the elections' corruption. Nearly everyone expects some fraud, and parties do little to conceal their vote-buying. Activists hand out blankets and stoves in parks. Outside Shahbandar, others distributed toys. A newspaper headline this week said a vote was going for about $100. When told that, a family in the neighborhood of Karrada grew indignant. They had received only the equivalent of $20.
With the corruption have come jokes. The latest plays off the slogan of the Iraqi Islamic Party: "Your life has value." Value can be the same word for a traditional stew served on a Shiite holiday. "Your life," the joke goes, "amounts to stew and rice."
But little beyond the fraud and jokes reminds anyone of the 2005 vote, when violence and its threat lurked menacingly over the process. Neither candidates' names nor their pictures were published, for fear they might be assassinated. Rallies were few, posters were torn down, and hardly anyone could describe a party's platform, much less its nominees.
These days, conversations about possible alliances that will follow the election are as heated as those about the campaigns themselves. The old coalitions in Iraq have crumbled. Nearly every component of the Shiite alliance that dominated the vote in 2005 is running on its own. Maliki, courting the nationalist vote of fellow Arabs, has turned on his former Kurdish allies. Some politicians are imagining new coalitions that might arise, bringing together Maliki, tribes from Sunni and Shiite regions and even secularists.
"Everyone knows the political map will change definitely," said Rafa al-Issawi, a Sunni politician and the deputy prime minister. "Everyone is waiting to see the results to rearrange their papers and to set up their alliances for the next elections."
A breeze caught the ashes of Ismail's water pipe, as the end approached of what he refers to as his "official hours" at the cafe. "A beginning," he called Saturday's vote.
"But my sense, and the sense of people I talk to, is that if they don't vote, then they're responsible for a situation that stays bad," he said, thumbing blue worry beads.
Mahmoud, his friend, nodded. "Our ambition is to have even more choice."
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