Iraq Elections: Courting African Iraqis
By TIMOTHY WILLIAMS AND DURAID ADNAN
BASRA, Iraq– During the past few weeks, most of the country’s major political candidates or their aides have come to Zubair, a poor, mainly-Sunni neighborhood on the outskirts of this oil-rich Shiite city, to campaign to a population that is as disaffected as any in Iraq.
Many of the people are Iraqi Africans who are shunned by much of the rest of the population in this southern Shiite-dominated region. They have higher than average levels of unemployment and many have become squatters in ramshackle abandoned buildings because they cannot afford rent.
Jalal Diab, a community leader, had sought to organize a political party to focus on the problems of African Iraqis, but was unable to afford the required $23,000 registration fee.
“Big coalitions don’t deal with dinars.”
— Jalal Diab
“Black people have a dream to have a political party because no one is representing our interests and needs,” he said. “But we are poor. We don’t even have a car for transportation.”
Mr. Diab said he wrote letters seeking help to various Iraqi political leaders, the United Nations, the African Union, the American, French and Russian embassies, and even President Obama.
He said no one had replied.
But because there are as many as several hundred thousand votes up for grabs in Basra’s African Iraqi community, politicians have made Zubair part of their itinerary in recent weeks.
Jawad Bolani and Ammar Hakim strolled the mud streets and surveyed the crumbling houses, but did not linger, residents said. Ayad Allawi met only with tribal and community leaders.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki visited Basra but did not venture to Zubair.
Each campaign made sure they left something behind, according to residents:
Mr. Bolani’s people gave away soccer jerseys. The prime minister’s representatives distributed pistols to tribal leaders and in a gesture to the poor announced that people would again be able to buy sugar with their ration cards – a staple that has been unavailable to them for several months.
Other voters got new cars and cash.
To ensure that those receiving the gifts followed through with a vote, they were required to swear to Allah, people here said.
Mr. Diab said he had been offered bribes by political parties in excess of $1 million for his support.
When asked if he meant Iraqi dinars rather than dollars, he chuckled.
“Big coalitions don’t deal with dinars,” he said.
Mr. Diab, who said he turned the offers down, said the lack of attention to African Iraqis was frustrating and that whoever forms the next government is unlikely to do any better by them.
“My dream is to run for office, but I don’t have the ability because I don’t have the money,” he said. “How can we compete with the big sharks who have eaten and want to continue to eat the wealth of Iraq? This isn’t about democracy; it’s about trading for votes.”