Iraqis often point out that Saddam Hussein talked about freedom and democracy almost as much as the Americans do. Back in his day, Iraqis were free to vote in one-party elections, and did so with such zeal that he once won 104 percent of the vote. When the Americans arrived almost two years ago, most Iraqis had high hopes for much better. Now every major poll shows an ever-larger majority of Iraqis want the Americans to leave. In next week's elections, not a single major candidate is campaigning on a pro-American platform. Mostly, Iraqis miss the freedom to read by electric light, or to bathe with running water--which were in extremely short supply in Baghdad the past week. Compared with Liberty with a capital L, those may seem like minor inconveniences--until you don't have them.
Elections aren't necessarily going to make people feel much better. Sunni moderates are mostly boycotting the elections, while Sunni insurgents threaten to kill anyone who participates. In most cases, voters will cast ballots for a party, yet won't even know the names of the actual candidates, which are being kept secret for security reasons. To protect polling places, the government has banned all vehicle traffic on Election Day, forbidden travel and mobilized every last cop and soldier. But that will just make it easier to spot the voters and give the resistance what it likes best: soft targets. "On Jan. 31, elections will have triumphed," says one Coalition diplomat. "But democracy will have failed."
In majority Shia areas, enthusiasm for elections is much higher, but that still doesn't translate into gratitude. The Shia List, a slate of candidates for the national assembly put together under the direction of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is almost certain to win the largest number of seats. Sistani has pledged not to interfere in politics, but he has all but made it a religious obligation to vote for his list. Ghassan al-Attia, a pro-American academic, is a secular Shia who heads a mixed list of candidates. He has just withdrawn from the campaign in disgust. "The freedom we have is the freedom of the jungle," he says. "And this democracy we have is a charade." He's convinced a victory for the religiously dominated Shia List is a guarantee of civil war. "My country is heading down the drain."
Increasing violence feeds this disenchantment. Last week alone there were at least 11 suicide car bombings in Iraq. Soldiers are jumpy. In Tall Afar, a generally pro-American area in the north, a patrol of the Stryker Brigade shot up a car that approached them and didn't stop, the driver apparently oblivious to the soldiers' instructions in the dark. Mom and Dad were killed in the front seat, leaving six blood-splattered, but mostly unhurt, orphans in the back. "They did everything they could to warn the vehicle to stop," said military spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Boylan. "In a perfect world, it wouldn't happen. But we're not in a perfect world."
Last week in the insurgent-friendly town of Baqubah, Americans and local officials tried a novel experiment. They invited wanted insurgents to come under an amnesty to a "peace conference" and to sign a pledge not to resist the government in exchange for dropping charges. "This pledge commits you to not even speak against the Americans," said cleric Fouad Attiya, 40. "If I call from my mosque for occupation forces to leave my country, does that make me a terrorist? Is this the freedom and democracy they are bringing us?" Like most of the others, he refused to sign. Saddam, of course, would have had them killed on the spot for such effrontery. The Americans kept their word and let the troublemakers go.