Guest: John Negroponte
ANNOUNCER: This is an MSNBC Special Report, “Iraq Votes.”
A nation embroiled in war and chaos prepares to hold its first competitive election in half a century. But will the fear of violence and reprisals keep Iraqis away from the polls? Tonight, NBC‘s Campbell Brown with a full hour on what lies ahead and what really is at stake in these elections nearly two years after Saddam Hussein was removed from power.
Correspondent Richard Engel views a campaign of courage and hope in a climate of intimidation and terror. Brian Williams joins the top military commander in Iraq for a look at the formidable task of transforming this bloody battleground into a peaceful, free society. Correspondent Jim Maceda inside the underground campaign.
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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It‘s just a question of the voting being able to take place in safe conditions.
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ANNOUNCER: Marked for death: Candidates must find a way to campaign and stay alive. NBC‘s Mark Mullen reports on Iraq‘s dangerous path to democracy. And Michelle Caruso-Cabrera shows us the unique challenges the women of Iraq face as they seek a voice in their new government.
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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We‘ve always dreamt of having a democratic Iraq, and now it‘s time for this to be realized.
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ANNOUNCER: Plus: How do you police one of the world‘s most dangerous neighborhoods? A walking tour through the streets of Baghdad. Does the coalition have the manpower to assure Iraqis a safe election day?
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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How nervous are you this week?
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ANNOUNCER: “Iraq Votes.” Now, reporting from Baghdad, Campbell Brown.
CAMPBELL BROWN, HOST: Good evening. I‘m coming to you Baghdad‘s Green Zone, headquarters for the U.S. military here. In three days, Iraq will hold its first real democratic election in 50 years. On Sunday, the polls are supposed to open at 7:00 AM and close at 5:00 PM, not unlike how we vote in the United States. But that‘s about where the similarities end.
For example, the government has not officially announced where the polling places are. They‘re just starting to get the word out. Because of security concerns, their locations have been kept secret. No one knows how many people will actually show up to vote. No one even knows if poll workers will be brave enough to do their jobs on Sunday. So much depends on the level of violence.
We begin tonight with a look at just what is at stake in this election on what was yet another violent day.
(voice-over): It‘s been nearly two years since U.S. forces toppled Saddam‘s government. While this election will give Iraqis the opportunity to go to the polls, many here are too afraid to cast their ballots.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, the security situation is not good these days, so if the situation continues on this way, we‘ll—we could not get to the election centers.
BROWN: And some of the candidates are so fearful of reprisals from insurgents that they don‘t want their names on ballots.
But those who do vote will elect a 275-seat transitional national assembly. The assembly will appoint a president and two deputies, and they will select a prime minister. The ultimate task for the national assembly is to write a permanent constitution, which must be voted on by the Iraqi people by October 15.
What‘s important, this will still be a transitional government. The permanent government won‘t be elected for another year, only after the Iraqis have written their constitution. And that means a long and difficult year ahead, in all likelihood, assuming Iraqis can get through this election on Sunday. Insurgents are threatening to kill anyone who takes part, and it has been, as we said, another violent day.
We get the latest now from NBC‘s Richard Engel.
RICHARD ENGEL, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Car bombs, mortars and machine gun attacks, at least 19 Iraqis and 1 U.S. Marine dead. The Marine was killed in Iskandiriyah in a mortar attack. Five others were wounded. In Baquba, a suicide car bomb killed an Iraqi policeman and injured six bystanders. Two roadside bombs in Tarmiyah killed two Iraqi civilians. In Ramadi, four Iraqi National Guards were found executed. In Baghdad, three schools designated as polling centers were attacked. No injuries, but that‘s at least 16 schools hit in three days. Just a few of the attacks scattered across the country today, but there‘s a pattern: suspected Sunni insurgents carrying out attacks in Sunni Muslim areas. Why?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They have to make sure that any Sunni who was thinking about going out to vote is too scared to go out to vote.
ENGEL: The goal, to make the election illegitimate, unbalanced without Sunni participation. And as this footage obtained by NBC News shows, insurgents are taking their threats directly to the people. In Haditha, west of Baghdad, they‘re plastering fliers outside mosques warning people not to vote, and at night, spray painting more threats.
And militants are using the media, posting this video on the Internet that shows insurgents carrying a bomb into a voting center in Mosul, setting the fuse and then detonating it, along with this roadside bombing two weeks ago in Mosul of a U.S. Stryker fighting vehicle. The U.S. military said one soldier was killed and three others injured in a bombing in the same area on the same day.
BROWN: I‘m joined now by Richard Engel, who‘s at our bureau here in Baghdad. And Richard, you have been here since before the war started. Talk to me first about security, the danger to Iraqis and to U.S. troops. Have you really seen a spike? Is it more dangerous—has it been—over the last few weeks?
ENGEL: There certainly has been an increase in violence across the country, and people are expecting it to get much worse. But it‘s hard to stress how much depends on geography. In Kurdish the provinces in the north, it‘s quite calm, and people there are expected to turn out in very large numbers to vote. In the largely Shiite south, a very similar situation. The situation is relatively calm. Militias in that city that aren‘t necessarily loyal to the government have been able to maintain a lid on the situation.
But that leaves Baghdad and other largely Sunni provinces that are to the north and west of here, and those are very dangerous. There are very few people who are expected to vote there. There are continuing attacks. And it is a situation where it is hard to imagine, for Iraqis, at least—they tell me that they can‘t imagine how there are going to be elections in these unstable areas on Sunday, Campbell.
BROWN: Richard, anecdotally—you speak Arabic—talking to Iraqis on the street, especially here in Baghdad because it is a mix of people—do you think enough will vote to give this election legitimacy?
ENGEL: Iraqis aren‘t really looking at the numbers so much. It doesn‘t matter to them if at the end of the day, 30 percent or 40 percent or even 50 percent of the people turned out. The way they‘re looking at it is who actually went to vote? Is it all Shiites? And Shiites are 60 percent of the population. So even if all of them turned out, well, the Kurds and the Sunnis won‘t necessarily see this as a legitimate vote. So it‘s very much dependent on having a broadly representative vote that most people are concerned about, so that one particular religious or ethnic group won‘t dominate over the other—Campbell.
BROWN: There are a few parties that are getting a lot of attention. And it‘s not accurate, actually, to call them “parties,” but rather coalitions of lists of names. Talk to us a little bit about who these people are who are sort of in the forefront and whether any one group really will dominate.
ENGEL: At this stage, there are three main political groups that are dominating. There are the Kurdish coalition, which is combining two traditionally very rival Kurdish factions. They‘re campaigning together, a very strong Kurdish bloc there. Then there‘s the Shiite candidate list, which has been blessed by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, and that has the front man al Hakim leading that particular group, also very strong. They‘ve been able to tap into all of the Shiite mosques in this country, really using them as a grass roots power to get the word out.
Then there is Ayad Allawi. He has been taking a lot of criticism from his opponents that because he has a position of power here, he has the backing of the Americans, that his campaign has been very strong. He‘s been flying around in U.S. helicopters. He‘s been using the Iraqi national broadcast, the Iraqiya state television, has bought many ads on other Arab television stations. So he has also mobilized a very strong campaign at this stage, Campbell.
BROWN: Any one party, though, able to sort of do this on their own, or is it going to require a coalition? I‘ve heard, for example, many putting forth the scenario that Allawi could become prime minister even if the leading Shia party were to dominate because they would like him to remain control, say, through the next year, if the violence continues to sort of take the heat for it.
ENGEL: That is a very possible speculation. It‘s hard to know. It could take the next eight weeks for all of this to sort itself out. There could be a lot of politicking and backdoor arrangements going on as they try and form a new government. That is really perhaps the most important part of this entire phase. What happens the day after the elections? What kind of new government will emerge?
Most people here understand at this stage that they‘re only electing a national assembly, but that national assembly has a critical role, which is to write the constitution, to establish what kind of state Iraq will become. Will it be an Islamic state? Will it be—will it have close relations to Iran? How much regional autonomy will the separate entities, the separate provinces in this country have?
Initially, before the modern state of Iraq was created, there were three separate provinces here, a Shiite in the south, a largely Sunni one in the middle and a Kurdish one in the north. And many people are concerned that even after these elections, the central government won‘t be strong enough to hold it together and that we could have a de facto situation returning back to a very strong federal system, where you have effectively three little mini-states operating under perhaps a weak umbrella of the nation of Iraq—Campbell.
BROWN: All right, Richard Engel, a long process ahead. Thanks very much.
Today there are 152,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq. Recently, about 10,000 additional American forces have come in to help with security for the election. With more perspective tonight, “NBC NIGHTLY NEWS” anchor Brian Williams spent the day with the top American commander in Iraq in Baghdad and beyond.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS ANCHOR (voice-over): In the abbreviated code of the military, they call him the CG, commanding general. And when the CG travels, it is under heavy security and on a number of different aircraft.
GEN. GEORGE CASEY, U.S. ARMY: It‘s not a new thing. You always have to be smarter than your enemy and try to outthink your enemy.
The governor has brought Mosul from a place where six weeks ago, we weren‘t quite sure there were going to be elections.
WILLIAMS: In the final days now before this election, four-star general George Casey, the Pentagon‘s No. 1 man in Iraq, invited us along for his final tour of the front before Sunday‘s vote. In this case, it is a front line in a battle that includes bombs, bullets and now ballots.
Downtown Mosul—a bombed-out, shot-up movie (ph) set-up, a city street. We travel inside a Stryker vehicle that earlier in the day survived a roadside bomb, one of five in just this city on just this one single day. On foot, General Casey gets to see the damage and meet the men who have held their ground here over the past few months. Note the black mushroom cloud in the distance during this roadside briefing. It‘s just another bomb exploding.
Casey then meets an Army sniper. He‘s back here with his unit after getting 20 holes in his body sewn up at a hospital in Germany.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I got hit by a mortar, sir. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) shrapnel in the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) back of my head, face (UNINTELLIGIBLE) arms.
WILLIAMS: The unit Casey is visiting has a 10 percent Purple Heart rate. One in ten of these soldiers will go home decorated for combat wounds, of those who get to go home. All day long, General Casey plays a role that is part Dwight Eisenhower, the other part Richard Daley of the Chicago of old. After all, the briefings prepared for him are all about polling places, projected turnout and election workers. Not surprisingly, this general has a very simple view of it all.
(on camera): If turnout is big—and you‘ll be watching in certain areas, obviously—your concern was visible today.
CASEY: Yes. For me, just the fact that millions of Iraqis are going to turn out and vote on the 30th is a huge step forward. And it‘s a triumph of democracy over tyranny. It‘s happened yet again.
BROWN: That was NBC‘s Brian Williams tonight.
When we continue, a firsthand account of being on patrol on Iraq and how U.S. forces will try keep the peace at the polls. ‘You‘re watching an MSNBC special report, “Iraq Votes.”
BROWN: We are back now from Baghdad with this MSNBC special report, “Iraq Votes.” As we said earlier, Iraq is on the verge of its first true elections in over 50 years. Many Iraqis have never voted in a democratic election. Some 14 million have registered, but the level of security at polling places will be a huge factor in determining how many show up. Three days—three days out, rather, security at those polling places is a top priority for U.S. forces. I went out on patrol with one platoon here in Baghdad.
(voice-over): Local schools turned into polling stations, and now a major target. Throughout Baghdad, American forces are patrolling the neighborhoods around them. Their mission today, to try preempt possible attacks. Most of these soldiers say they expect more bloodshed between now and Sunday, but they‘re doing what they can. This battalion is tasked with door-to-door sweeps.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Since your house is this close to the polling site, we just need to take a quick look through and kind of clear the house.
BROWN: Once inside, they search for weapons and scope out locations where a sniper might target voters who do show up.
Car bombings have been rampant in recent weeks. On Sunday, all vehicles will be banned from the street, though it does mean people will have to walk to polling places. Once there, they‘ll be protected by Iraqi troops and police. U.S. troops, like these on patrol in Sadr City, will try to keep a lower profile.
Yet despite almost daily attacks, there are parts of the city where there‘s a semblance of normal life, and where we, with military troops nearby, were able to interact with people freely.
(on camera): This area of Baghdad is one of the few places we feel safe walking around. The military is on patrol here. There are children outside playing, people sitting out on their porches. And a polling station just a few blocks from here is likely to get some activity on Sunday.
(voice-over): Hopefully, it‘s people voting peacefully, but the city is holding its breath, at least until voting is over and polling places closed.
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Another note on security. Starting tomorrow, Iraq‘s borders will be closed through Tuesday and travel will be restricted. A nightly curfew will begin at 7:00 PM local time. U.S. forces here are walking a fine line at times, trying to keep the country‘s polling places safe while also keeping a low profile. But with more than 150,000 troops on the ground, it can be tough sometimes to avoid adding fuel to the fire.
Yesterday when I was out on patrol, I talked with one of the men whose job it is to keep the peace, 1st Lieutenant Matthew Byly (ph), platoon leader, 1st Cavalry. We talked about some of the challenges they face when they‘re out on the search for weapons and bomb-making materials.
How do you strike a balance when you‘re trying to keep your guys safe, get the job done without walking in the door and infuriating these people?
1ST LT. MATTHEW BYLY, 1ST CAVALRY: Right. I mean, you just kind of need to go middle of the road and just be able to turn it either up or down, as either a threat presents itself or you get people in there that are cooperating, you know, like we did today.
Main effort‘s going to be the search team. That‘s going to consist of Jergens (ph), Dotson (ph), Bellamy, myself, the interpreter...
BROWN: But how much do you rely on the intelligence, or is it almost gut feeling half the time?
BYLY: Yes, a lot of it‘s gut feeling. I mean, we—when we—as soon as we enter the building...
Is it open? All right. Ready, go.
· we go in with a little bit more force and just—and basically gain control.
All right, bring them all in this room. Come here!
And then assess it from there.
BROWN: And sometimes you find something, and sometimes...
BYLY: Yes. Exactly.
BROWN: ... you‘re completely off base.
BYLY: All right, I‘m going to send Gwin (ph) and Christopher upstairs. Right. You two go upstairs.
For all the raids we‘ve done, we‘re probably 50-50 with being dry holes and actually finding stuff.
BROWN: Do you find people cooperative most of the time?
BYLY: Yes, most of the time. We try—out of about 40 that we‘ve done, we‘ve probably had a handful, maybe five or six people that haven‘t been cooperative. Even the guys that we‘re finding stuff on are pretty cooperative because they‘re (UNINTELLIGIBLE) have any means to fight back once we‘re in.
BROWN: How nervous are you this week? More so than normal?
BYLY: Yes, it could be interesting.
Roger. I‘m (UNINTELLIGIBLE) let you know we finished the search of the first place by the German embassy. It‘s a legit business. What they do is, they store cars here, and they‘ve got a lot that they sell them out of. So the first imagery I have, they have 30 cars. They have 30 cars there for the second or third imagery.
It‘ll definitely be an interesting week. I mean, I don‘t—we‘re not necessarily going to be at the polling sites, so I‘m not really fearful that we‘re going to get hit. I‘m sure something—they‘re going to try something on the polling sites, though, I‘m sure.
BROWN: We hear about the Americans are supposed to hang back on election day and not be so present.
BROWN: But look at you guys. I mean, the U.S. military is not exactly subtle. How do you do that?
BYLY: Well, this is kind of the pre0election run-up, so we‘re out—you know, we‘re going around, clearing the buildings today. Come election day, it‘ll be more the Iraqi police and the national guard right there doing the security. I mean, we‘ll be basically waiting in the wings.
BROWN: And I‘d like to say thank you to the platoon that brought me out on patrol with them, as well as my crew. They‘re in a dangerous situation and under enough stress, and it certainly adds to it, having to drag me around in addition. But I appreciate them giving me some perspective.
And now we turn to a man who has also given us a lot of perspective on all this, retired general Wayne Downing, an MSNBC/NBC News analyst and retired Army general. It‘s good to have you here in Baghdad with us.
GEN. WAYNE DOWNING, U.S. ARMY (RET.), MSNBC MILITARY ANALYST: Thanks, Campbell.
BROWN: I know you‘ve been talking to the commanders here. Tell me what it‘s going to take, from the military‘s perspective, to pull this off on Sunday?
DOWNING: Well, this is a surge, Campbell. They‘re probably running operations now which are about 25 percent greater than what they normally do. That, added with the fact that we‘ve got over 10,000 additional forces here, means that they‘ve been running operations now for about three to four weeks. These operations are aimed at eliminating some of these insurgent groups. They‘ve actually had the special operations forces of the United States, the coalition and the Iraqi special forces targeting key individuals.
And I think they‘ve been very successful. They‘re being fairly quiet about it. They don‘t want to say too much. But the big thing that, of course, the military forces have to do, and the Iraqi security forces, is establish this layer of security in and around these polling places. We don‘t also, Campbell, want to put U.S. forces, coalition forces, at the polling sites. We really want that mission to go to the Iraqis, you know, because you want to put a strong Iraqi face on this election if it‘s not only going to be successful but also look right to the rest of the world.
BROWN: So how do we measure it? Sunday comes and goes. What are we looking for on Sunday? What are the indicators that tell us it worked?
DOWNING: Yes. Well, Campbell, I think what we want to look for on Sunday are two things, really, is, one, what kind of turnout do we get? And two, what kind of security? What kind of violence goes on inside the country? Now, as far as turnout goes, you know, we anticipate in the Kurdish areas and the Sunni areas, we‘re going to have a very, very good turnout...
BROWN: Not in the Sunni areas, in the Kurdish areas and the Shia.
DOWNING: Excuse me. Yes. Thanks for correcting that. So—in the Shia areas. So what‘s that? Fifty to sixty percent would probably be very, very high.
Now, what‘s going to happen in these Sunni areas? I mean, I think that if we got 25 percent of the vote out in these Sunni areas, it‘ll be a wild success. Will it be that high? I don‘t know. You know, maybe it‘s only going to be 5 percent or 6 percent, not so high, but we‘d still have participation.
The ex-pat vote, you know, which they were counting on maybe a million voters, looks like that‘s going to be under 30 percent. So they didn‘t really get the ex-pat vote that they thought they would. There‘s a lot of reasons for it.
Now, violence. You know, what happens out there? You know, do the insurgents attack the polling places? Do they attack people going to the polling places? And something that we should not forget. It takes people to run the polling places. So do the Iraqis who volunteered for this very, very dangerous duty of being the poll workers—are they able to come to work?
BROWN: Are they going to show up?
DOWNING: Or does somebody get to them? And of course...
BROWN: And intimidate them.
DOWNING: ... if they don‘t show up, then that means that particular polling place would not be open, and they‘d have to start moving voters around, which would be very, very confusing.
Now, of course, you know, the—we‘ve been planing this. The U.S. forces, the coalition forces, the Iraqis have been planning this heavily for six months. But I mean, we‘re coming up to a very, very significant strategic event in this conflict...
DOWNING: ... here in Iraq. So it‘s going to really be interesting. I think if we watch those four things, it‘s going to tell us what‘s going on.
BROWN: Finally, looking beyond, keeping this place secure over the next year or even longer.
BROWN: Are more U.S. troops the answer, or is it really about getting the Iraqi security forces ready to go?
DOWNING: Campbell, I believe—and I‘ve believed this for two years
· that the secret to this whole thing are the Iraqi security forces. I truly believe that if we put the entire U.S. military here, all 1.8 million active and reserve, we could not pacify this country.
What‘s needed—it‘s going to need—it‘s going to take us, the other coalition forces, but we‘ve got to build these Iraqi security forces up to a point where they can establish security not only for things like elections but for economic development, the provision of government services. Security is absolutely the thing you have to have if that‘s going to go.
BROWN: General Wayne Downing, good to have you here with us...
BROWN: ... in Baghdad.
DOWNING: Thanks, Campbell.
BROWN: And we‘ll be turning to you many times over the next few days.
DOWNING: Thank you.
BROWN: And coming up, campaigning in a war zone, the candidates literally risking their lives to run for what they believe in. More on that when this MSNBC special report “Iraq Votes” returns.
BROWN: Welcome back to this MSNBC special report, “Iraq Votes.”
NBC‘s Mark Mullen has been following the volatile situation in Mosul, one of Iraq‘s largest cities, where recent violence could prevent residents there from casting ballots in Sunday‘s elections.
We turn to him now.
And, Mark, let me ask you, it‘s extremely dangerous in Mosul. What‘s the situation there? What are the expectations there for Sunday?
MARK MULLEN, NBC CORRESPONDENT: It should be interesting.
What‘s so fascinating about Mosul is, it really is an extraordinary political story, because it‘s night and day. It‘s really a story about before and after. Let me explain. Right after the war, Mosul really was considered a model postwar city in Iraq. General Petraeus rolled in there with 101st Airborne and kept the peace, not by force, but really by reaching out to the local community.
The Army spent money on local community projects. They made deals with community leaders. The local government stayed intact. The local police department stayed intact. And the community, for its part, reacted really well to all of that. In fact, the Army got a tip that Saddam Hussein‘s notorious sons were hiding out. It was Mosul in which they were found out and later killed in a shoot-out.
So, bottom line, it was working. And it was really considered a model. It was working so well, however, that a decision was made to pull some of those troops out of Mosul and send them to other hot spots, specifically Fallujah. And that is where the problem began.
Basically, what happened, when the U.S. troops started going into Fallujah, some of the insurgents who did not stay to fight the troops doubled back and ended up going into Mosul. By that time, though, you only had one-quarter of the U.S. troops guarding Mosul. Bottom line, Mosul now becomes the new insurgent stronghold and, very quickly, Mosul went to hell in a handbasket. Lesson learned.
Military now has sent people back into Mosul, including the Stryker Brigade. It is a detachment out of Washington state that‘s very effective. But, by now, you also have insurgents who are firmly entrenched in all of that.
Bottom line in all of this, Campbell, it really poses the question, not only in Mosul, but in other cities around Iraq. In the absence of a trained police and Iraqi military, how will peace be kept in the absence of a strong U.S. military strength continuing here in Iraq?
BROWN: Well, we‘ll certainly be watching the activity there on Sunday. NBC‘s Mark Mullen, thanks very much.
And running for office in Iraq, it can literally be life-and-death work as candidates risk the wrath of insurgents.
NBC‘s Jim Maceda has been following this part of the story.
JIM MACEDA, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the streets of Baghdad, it‘s life-and-death work. Election volunteers rushing to put up posters protected by heavily-armed police. Everyone is edgy. “Get that camera out of my face,” he says. “At any time, insurgents could strike. They‘ve declared war on the January 30 vote and anyone who supports it.”
So, back at headquarters, the man on the posters, the elder statesman Adnan Pachachi, who heads a liberal Sunni coalition, tries to get his message out when politicking means risking your life.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We‘re unable to meet people in the streets and even kiss babies, as usual.
MACEDA: In the past two months alone, at least 10 candidates have been killed, hundreds threatened, men and women.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have lost my son and my bodyguard.
MACEDA: Salama al-Khafaji has survived three assassination attempts. She heads a party for women‘s and children‘s rights. But after the latest attack earlier this month, Salama now campaigns from her house. Why does she go on?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have to continue this state of having democracy in Iraq.
MACEDA: But four of Iraq‘s 18 provinces are war zones. Insurgents have blown up at least 10 schools, all polling stations.
(on camera): More than 7,000 candidates from 109 political parties and each and every one of them has to figure out how to win an election and stay alive.
(voice-over): So, parties aren‘t publishing most candidates‘ names, no rallies or debates. Instead, top contenders produce their own commercials. The wealthy interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, has spent at least $4 million on TV ads, avoiding contact with crowds. Still, there are exceptions.
Only months ago, Fatah Gazi (ph) defended a Shiite militia locked in battle against U.S. forces in Sadr City, Baghdad‘s Shiite slum. Today, Fatah is an Islamic Party candidate working the crowds in his own Shiite neighborhood. But even here, he‘s a marked man.
“I came home one night and found a blank note on my door with only a big of drop on it,” he recalls.
But mostly, it‘s a stealth election for mostly anonymous candidates in this, a campaign like no other.
Jim Maceda, NBC News, Baghdad.
BROWN: Up next, how women are being included in the Iraqi election.
That part of the story when our special report returns.
BROWN: There is a lot at stake for the women of Iraq in Sunday‘s election, as they try to become a force in their country‘s new government. And even though Iraq‘s election rules state that at least 25 percent of the country‘s new legislative body must be women, they‘re still facing some major challenges and risks.
NBC‘s Michelle Caruso-Cabrera reports on the future implications for Iraq and perhaps for the entire region.
MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Masun al-Dalmaluji (ph) is Iraq‘s undersecretary of culture. She hopes to be part of the new legislature come Election Day January 30.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We‘ve always dreamt of having a democratic Iraq.
And now is time for this to be realized.
CARUSO-CABRERA: Jinana Rabade (ph), an official with Iraq‘s Health Department, has the same dream.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have a free mind to think. I have a loud voice. I think I can do something. That‘s why I want to be a candidate.
CARUSO-CABRERA: Both represent what is likely to be a dramatic social change in Iraq. Every party on the ballot is required to have one female candidate for every two male candidates.
(on camera): The goal? A legislature that‘s 25 percent female, key because that legislature will write Iraq‘s new constitution.
ZAINAB SALBI, WOMEN FOR WOMEN INTERNATIONAL: If women aren‘t represented in the drafting of the new Iraqi constitution, it is disaster for Iraq.
CARUSO-CABRERA: Observers say the move is about more than just equality. It‘s designed to prevent the rise of an extreme fundamentalist government, one that might be unfriendly to the United States.
An example, Afghanistan in the ‘90s under the Taliban, where women lost many rights.
SALBI: Divorce, custody, inheritance, child alimony, access to work, access to education.
CARUSO-CABRERA: But meeting the goal of 25 percent won‘t be easy. Many women are afraid to run in the wake of high-profile assassinations, including a woman who once worked with Ambassador Paul Bremer, Akila Hashemi. And just last week, insurgents tried to kill Salama al-Khafaji, another well-known candidate.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One thing you learn, if you live long enough in this part of the world, and is that to become fatalistic.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We spent so many years in fear. No time now also to be afraid.
BROWN: And Michelle Caruso-Cabrera is joining us now from our bureau here in Baghdad.
And, Michelle, talk to us a little bit more about the fact that this is not entirely new to the women of Iraq. They had many rights under the regime of Saddam Hussein.
CARUSO-CABRERA: Yes, despite how despotic Saddam Hussein was, the personal rights for women in Iraq under him were actually unparalleled in the Middle East, the right to work, the right to education, the right to travel abroad without a male. In fact, the very first female minister in all of the Middle East was here in Iraq. That was back in the 1930s, Campbell.
BROWN: And what about Iraqi women voters? You go out and you talk to them. We‘ve talked so much tonight about turnout, what‘s expected. What do you think it means for women?
CARUSO-CABRERA: It‘s really impossible to know. Just as we don‘t know how many Iraqi voters will show up, we don‘t know how many women will show up. We do know that the Iraqi Election Commission has begun a campaign directed, targeted at women both on TV and also in print, telling them that it‘s just as important that they participate in democracy as it is for the men to participate.
BROWN: All right, Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, joining us from here in Baghdad, thanks very much.
And up next, what will it take to call this election a success? My interview with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte.
BROWN: Encouraging Iraqis to vote is one of the keys to the election‘s success, and their safety at the polls may be the biggest challenge. It‘s part of the reason locations of the polling places have been kept secret until the last minute.
When I sat down with John Negroponte, the United States ambassador to Iraq, we asked him about this unusual strategy to ensure the safety of voters.
BROWN: There are people who don‘t even know where the polling stations are going to be. How do you hold an election like—under these circumstances?
JOHN NEGROPONTE, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ: The polling places haven‘t all been identified yet for security reasons. But I think you‘ll see over the next several days, that information will become known. A few weeks ago, there was little evidence of campaigning on television and radio. Today, the TV stations are inundated with political activity. Posters are plastered all over the country.
BROWN: It‘s an unusual campaign, to say the least.
NEGROPONTE: Of course it is.
BROWN: Have you ever—you‘ve had a long career in this business, if you want to call it a business.
BROWN: Have you ever seen anything like this?
NEGROPONTE: No, not quite, no, because the security environment is difficult. But, certainly, holding an election in time of conflict is not unprecedented by any means. What I find interesting is that most Iraqis would like to vote.
BROWN: There‘s enormous concern about Sunni participation. I don‘t have to tell you that. The expectation is, coming out of this election, that it‘s going to be a Shia-dominated government. How do you try ensure Sunni participation after the fact?
Well, first of all, I don‘t think any one group is going to predominate the National Assembly. There‘s not going to any monolith out there that is going to be controlling the situation, because there are more than 100 different groups and slates and coalitions that are fielding candidates.
BROWN: That‘s true, but the key Sunni parties have backed out.
They‘re boycotting the elections.
NEGROPONTE: There are Sunnis scattered throughout the candidate lists. There are nonreligious Sunnis. There are nonsectarian groups that are participating. So it‘ll be interesting to see what happens, if some of the people on their lists are actually elected.
BROWN: But is that what we‘re banking on, is that they might by chance?
NEGROPONTE: No, I‘m not. I‘m just—No, we‘re not. I‘m just responding to the point you made about the fact that some of these Sunni groups have withdrawn.
I think it‘s likely that, in terms of their percentage of the population, they may be somewhat underrepresented. But there will be other opportunities for Iraqis of all ethnicities and religious persuasions to participate in the political process going forward.
BROWN: Do you think that the Shia elected or whoever is elected at the end of this would reach out? I‘m looking for examples to say...
If you talk to the head of the Shia list, he will tell that you his philosophy towards Iraq‘s politics is one of participation and consensus. And he has publicly come out and said that he favors Sunni participation in the future political activity in the country.
BROWN: You have often made the point, and you made it from the very beginning, that, when we talk about the issues that Iraq is facing right now, that there are for Iraqis to resolve. How do you I guess mesh that, though, with the fact that you‘ve got 150,000 ever-present U.S. forces on the ground here? How can the U.S. really be disengaged?
NEGROPONTE: Well, we‘re certainly not disengaged now.
But our objective here is to help enhance the Iraqi armed forces and their police forces, so that they can progressively take on greater and greater responsibility for the security of their country.
BROWN: If the new government sets a timetable for U.S. troops to withdraw, will we abide by that?
NEGROPONTE: Well, I don‘t think that that‘s the way this issue is going to evolve. Most political leaders...
BROWN: How do you think it will evolve?
NEGROPONTE: What I think is more likely to evolve is that any Iraqi government that results from this political process is going to want to see the continued strengthening of their army and their police force, so that they can take on greater and greater responsibility for security, which is going to permit a realignment, or an adjustment, if you will, of our own posture, so that they can get out in front more in terms of taking on this insurgency and we can play more of a support role.
I think that‘s the likely evolution.
BROWN: When we come back, some closing thoughts, along with a look at the last time the Iraqi people voted.
BROWN: The last time the Iraqi people went to the polls was October of 2002. And there was one candidate on the ballot, Saddam Hussein. In that referendum, Saddam‘s regime claimed he won 100 percent of the people‘s vote for another seven-year term.
Over the last century, the people of Iraq have endured dozens of military and political coups, ethnic strife and certainly foreign influence. That influence will continue. An American presence will likely be here for many years to come.
No what happens here Sunday, it‘s a tremendously important moment in Iraq‘s history and in U.S. history, with Americans, for better or worse, bringing this moment to fruition.
I will be back here in Baghdad on Saturday and Sunday, anchoring “Weekend Today,” as the people of Iraq get set to go to the polls. And, of course, NBC News and MSNBC will bring you the vote as it happens this Sunday, January 30, with reports from across Iraq.
From Baghdad tonight, I‘m Campbell Brown. Good night.
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