Democracy in Iraq is in the eye of the beholder. ??Some see in next week's national election a gleam of salvation after years of tyranny and occupation; others perceive the sharp threat of civil war. For the al-Saadi family in Baghdad, the Jan. 30 election can't come soon enough. "I'd like to go out and vote right now," says Karim, 43, an electrical-goods salesman who supports a family of 12. His neighborhood, the hardscrabble district of Washash, home to a mainly Shi'ite population of laborers and small traders, is one of the few in Iraq's capital where a high voter turnout is predicted. His mother Sabiha has lofty hopes for what an elected Iraqi government can achieve. "It will solve all our problems," she says. "We will have electricity, my children will have jobs, and I won't have to worry about their safety when they go out."
A few miles across town, the outlook is far gloomier. In the mainly Sunni, middle-class neighborhood of Saidiyah, residents question not only what the election means but also whether it should take place at all.
Building contractor Omar Nasreddin, 47, says he intends to sit out the vote. Sunni clerics have called for a boycott, while extremists have threatened violence against those who take part. Nasreddin's reluctance stems from a suspicion that the U.S. will rig the vote. "Whoever is elected will immediately sign over Iraqi sovereignty to the U.S.," Nasreddin says, "and keep American troops in Iraq forever." He is so concerned about his fate under a new government that he asks not to be identified by his real name.
Such is the divide in Iraq on the eve of its ready-or-not plunge into democracy: heady optimism on one street, jittery paranoia down another. In a country roiled by insurgency and sectarian tensions, occupied by a foreign army and populated by citizens largely unfamiliar with the democratic process, this is a time of profound uncertainty. The U.S. and the interim Iraqi government are hopeful that at least half the country's 15 million eligible voters will take part in the election, but no one can predict with any certainty what the turnout will be, especially among the disaffected Sunni population, who make up about 20% of the electorate. "We have no idea," says Carlos Valenzuela, head of the U.N. team overseeing the elections. "It would be up to the Iraqi public to determine." For many, just getting to the polls will be a challenge. The government plans to close all roads in the three days leading up to the vote.
With insurgents promising to sow chaos on election day, the mere act of casting a ballot has become a life-threatening proposition. Even in the holy city of Najaf, in the heart of largely Shi'ite southern Iraq, there are palpable fears of election-related violence. "Every day I watch when a car pulls up in the street," says Abbas Hamid Abdul Rezea as U.S. Marines erect concrete barricades across the road from his home at a school that will serve as a polling station. "Every day we are so scared."