BAGHDAD (AFP) — People from Baghdad’s Shiite and Sunni neighbourhoods of Kadhimiyah and Adhamiyah, which face each other across the Tigris River, agree on one thing — voting and religion do not mix in Iraq.
Separated only by the water and the rubbish that floats downstream, these two districts were the scene of some of the bloodiest sectarian battles that followed the US-led invasion of 2003 that saw Saddam Hussein ousted from power.
In provincial elections on January 31, Sunnis will take part in large numbers in a marked change from their boycott of polls four years ago that left the field clear for Shiite politicians to take control.
While religion is crucial to people in Iraq, the sectarianism that saw thousands killed on both sides of the river during the worst days of 2006 and 2007 will not influence this week’s poll, residents say.
“I am looking for someone who understands the youth, is ambitious and is able to rebuild the nation and help people,” said Sohaib Hussein Abdulamir, a 20-year-old biology student at an Adhamiyah park on the banks of the Tigris.
“I am not choosing my candidate on a religious basis.”
Noor, a bareheaded 21-year-old student teacher walking towards the park with her friends, most of whom were veiled, was similarly insistent on who would secure her backing.
“I will vote for a secular candidate and not for Sunni or a Shiite one,” said Noor, giving only her first name. “They should have a university degree and have the ability to help Iraq make progress.”
Such views echo the findings of a recent opinion poll, which said 42 percent of eligible voters favoured secular candidates and only 31 percent religious ones.
With the help of the United Nations, Iraq’s Independent High Election Commission is organising the elections in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces — the first vote in the country since 2005.
Kadhimiyah, named after a revered Shiite shrine, and Adhamiyah, built around the tomb of a famed eighth century Sunni lawmaker, are connected by the Al-Aima (Imams) bridge, which has in recent times witnessed its own bloodshed.
The crossing was closed after 1,000 Shiite pilgrims died in a deadly stampede in August 2005, triggered by a false alarm over a suicide bomber.
Tens of thousands of worshippers had been marking the death 12 centuries ago of the revered Imam Musa Kadhim, in what became one of the deadliest incidents to hit Iraq after the invasion.
The bridge reopened in November, amid dramatic improvements in security in the capital, where US and Iraqi forces have largely routed the sectarian militias and insurgents that once ruled large swathes of the city.
Older residents in Adhamiyah also ruled out voting along sectarian lines.
“I am looking for integrity and honesty in candidates opposed to the previous regime… Religion is not an issue for me,” said Mohammad Taha, a 51-year-old shopkeeper.
His lifelong friend Hassan Hamed, 58, a retired army officer, said: “I will vote for the candidate which I find most devoted to Iraq.”
On the other side of the river in Kadhimiyah, Ali Mahdi Ibrahim, 44, owner of a confectionery shop near the shrine, believed passionately that life could improve.
“I have chosen my list and candidate,” he said, waving his hands around. “I chose them based on the trust I have in them and not the religious line. I hope once elected they can elevate the name of Iraq by their decisions.”
Streets on both banks of the river are inundated with posters, banners and leaflets urging people to vote.
In Baghdad, home to seven million people, 57 seats are up for grabs with 2,482 candidates from different electoral lists, ranging from secular to religious.
But among Shiites and Sunnis are also residents who will not vote at all.
Motasam Mamoun Ibrahim, 28, a Sunni shopkeeper in Adhamiyah, said: “I will not take part since it is in vain.”
Emad Jabbar, a 40-year-old Shiite government employee in Kadhimiyah, was similarly downbeat.
“I won’t vote. Look, those who have been elected in the previous elections have done nothing.”