The mood was one of celebration. Iraqis in the northern Diyala province city of Khanaqin crowded into polling centers on provincial election day, 31 January 2009. Many dressed in their best Kurdish or Arab traditional clothing or wrapped in flags. "We are happy to express our democracy," several told us after voting, showing their purple tipped fingers.
As international independent election observers, Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) Iraq team members visited three polling sites. At each place, voting procedures seemed efficient, and workers seemed helpful and fair. We saw no threatening behavior on the part of Khanaqin police who guarded the sites and searched people going in. But not everyone walked out happy or with purple fingers.
Farid Zhian, with his wife and adult son told us, "We won't leave until we can vote, even if we have to stay all day!" Saddam's regime forced their family to leave Khanaqin and move to Fallujah in the 1970's. After they returned to the Khanaqin area (now called "returnees"), they applied to transfer their food ration card, which would allow them to vote here. Today, however, their names weren't on the voting list. Family after family came to us with similar stories and complaints.
Yusef Ahmad Mustafa, member of the Iraqi Parliament, expressed frustration that 16,000 Kurdish returnees, just from Khanaqeen, have been refused the right to vote. "I tried to fix this problem so many times. This is the responsibility of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC.) In name they are independent, but they don't like Kurds."
Outside the (IHEC) office, we saw a crowd of about 300 Kurdish returnees protesting and demanding the right to vote.
"We have a choice: to vote, or to set the polling place on fire," an angry man told us. "I had a family member killed by Saddam. It is very important that I can vote now!"
Another man told us Saddam removed his family to Ramadi in 1975, but now they returned to this area. "This is not democracy!" he said, "I am Iraqi and I want to vote in Khanaqin. Why can't I vote?" Clamoring to be heard, other men and women crowded around us with their ID's and ration papers in their hands.
Our conclusion at the end of the day was that even though the physical voting process at the sites seemed fair, the IHEC's implementation of its internal electoral registration rules, led to a flawed outcome disfavoring the Kurds.
Later, electoral officials confirmed a report that about a million Arab internally displaced people (IDPs) in southern Diyala province and northern Baghdad province had the same difficulties voting as the Kurdish returnees in Khanaqin and other northern Kurdish disputed areas. After protesting on the streets, however, the Arab IDP's were allowed to vote. The difference in treatment of Arab and Kurd voters fuels the belief of many Kurds, that the IHEC intentionally used its internal voting regulations to reduce the number of Kurdish voters. Unfortunately, this will only increase the animosity and mistrust between Iraq's ethnic groups.
(c) Peggy Gish has a long-term involvement with Christian Peacemaker Teams - www.cpt.org