The purple finger remains a hopeful symbol in Iraq, as Iraqis go to the polls

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. Iraq has come a long way since Saddam Hussein. A decade of war, widespread violence and chaos and yet, today, Iraq was able to hold its fifth set of elections since Saddam's downfall and the first election since US forces pulled out of the country. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is competing for a third term as Iraq's leader. We turn to Jane Arraf, Baghdad reporter for Al Jazeera America and the Christian Science Monitor. She was in Amman, Jordan today, keeping an eye on the voting back in Iraq.

Jane Arraf: By Iraqi standards, it actually went pretty well. I mean really, the standard you hold things to in Iraq is if a lot of people don't die, it's a pretty big success.

Werman: You'll remember clearly Jane that first election in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The purple finger was this kind of emblem of hope, those who voted would get their finger marked with purple ink and it became a sign of determination to turn Iraq around. Is the purple ink still used in voting booths and does it still have the same meaning it had a few years ago?

Arraf: That's an interesting question. It absolutely is still used. Prime Minister al-Maliki went to the polls this morning, the polls being in the ballroom of the luxury Al-Rasheed hotel in the Green Zone and dipped his finger in that ink and held it up and it is still being used. It's still a sign that this is a new Iraq, that this has the chance to be a much better Iraq than it was under Saddam Hussein. But you're absolutely right about that first election. I covered it in ?? and people were telling me that I seemed to be giddy. If I was giddy, it was because people were giddy. They were so excited to be able to do this finally after so many years of oppression. But I think the thing that we've all learned is that elections by themselves don't (??) democracy, they're a sign post on the way. That's not the only thing you need for a democratic country, for a country where people are allowed to determine their future.

Werman: How does that giddiness compare with today?

Arraf: Oh gosh. You know, elections are still thrilling, no matter where you are. If they are actually true, if people can go out and vote without intimidation, it is an extraordinary thing because it opens a whole world of possibilities. But you can't help but be a little bit depressed and even in despair at going outside of those polling stations in the school and looking around at the trash and looking around at the poverty, knowing that a lot of the votes were bought, knowing that a lot of the members of parliament, if they're elected, will move out of poor neighborhoods into more affluent neighborhoods or into the Green Zone. So that tempers it somewhat.

It also tempers it because, again, in Anbar and Fallujah, people aren't voting. They can't get to the polls. They are surrounded. Their city in Fallujah is controlled by gunmen, the outskirts are controlled by Iraqi army forces and there's a war going on that we're not even able to cover, in the same way that we couldn't report on American Marines and soldiers, bodybags going home and fighting in Fallujah, we can't report on Iraqi soldiers leaving in coffins. It's another hidden war.

Werman: I have a friend on Facebook who is Iraqi and voted today. He also showed a picture of his purple finger and his kid's purple finger. How old do you have to be to vote in Iraq? Or is that just they wanted their finger purple?

Arraf: I'll tell you, you don't have to be any age at all to get the nice polling station man to let you dip your finger in the ink because we've all done it and it's really cool. The ink kind of lasts for a long time, so if you take your kids there - and you know what? That is the most wonderful thing to see, actually. Maybe even more than the voting part, is seeing people take their kids, showing their kids "Hey, look, this is what we're doing. We're creating a new Iraq. We're part of this." That is the most wonderful thing, seeing people going in with their families. When they go in with their families, yes, even the kids get to dip their fingers in. I don't think their voting because you need an actual registration card for that.

Werman: If we look at Iraq as divided between Shia and minority Sunni Muslims, do you think this election is really just about who's going to lead the Shia population? Because Sunni Muslims seem pretty marginalized and excluded from power right now.

Arraf: They are marginalized but the thing about Iraq right now is pretty much everybody is marginalized. The conflict though isn't just between Sunni and Shia. It's really a struggle for the soul of what this country will become. By that I mean will it be a democracy? Will it be the kind of place where officials continue to steal money and people get crumbs? Will it be a country where you can walk in the streets?

Werman: Reporter Jane Arraf, thank you so much.

Arraf: Thank you.

Werman: Let's hear from an Iraqi voter now. Baghdad resident Sahar Issa went to the polls today in the Iraqi capital.

Sahar Issa: To tell you the truth, I was surprised the polling station was nearly empty. The atmosphere was very cool. People didn't seem to be very enthusiastic. There was much fewer people than I'd ever seen before at polling stations.

Werman: That contrasts really sharply with all the reports that we were hearing with those first two elections in Iraq. What do you think that's all about?

Issa: Even the IHEC, this is the electoral commission, points at only 55% participation in this election and those of us who are observing the conditions in Iraq aren't really very surprised because so many things have taken place that have, I will not say stopped, but have made the participation of a big component of the Iraqi society, and this is the Sunni component, very difficult to participate in this election. Between the war that is in Anbar, between the dam that has flooded more than 42 schools or polling stations in the [inaudible], which is the majority of the Sunni population, and things like that - 55% participation, seems just about right.

Werman: Do you think people will respect the results of this vote?

Issa: That remains to be seen. I think the prime minister is in for the shock of his life, in spite of the fact that no great number of Sunnis are participating. Everyone who went to the elections today, except for a very few, had one thing in common: change faces. They do not want a third term for the present administration.

Werman: Do you think there's anyone who can unite the country?

Issa: Unite the country? It is a dream. It is a dream. I think it's possible if only they would come together on a national platform. Of course the wounds that have taken place in the last several months between Sunni and Shia because of the war, because of bad treatment, because of detentions, because of injustice and things like for the Sunni population - I think they want to reach out and I believe that it is possible for the winners of this election who most certainly going to be a bigger coalition, to reach out. It is possible.

Werman: There's so much at stake with this election. Tell us about someone you know for whom their future might reside on how the country emerges from this vote.

Issa: I will tell you something. I go into a shop and I intend to buy some candy for some children I know and two boys are having a discussion in their perhaps 19th or 20th year. And they turn to me. "Auntie," they say. "What do you think? Is this a good time for a person to think about marriage?" His friend tells him "No, no, no, let's wait after the elections." Perhaps things will change. People who want to sell property are waiting for the results of the elections. People who want to get married. People who want to pack and leave the country are waiting for the results. People who want to open business or shut down business are waiting for the results. Why? Because things have gone into such a black hole this past period that everyone is waiting to see a light at the end of that tunnel. We are all hoping for something better to come along, hoping by itself of course is not enough, but hoping is all we can do. We have taken our fingers, we have put them in the purple ink, we have put our little ticks and we are hoping for the best and willing to cheer anyone on who's willing to take the load and unite the people.

Werman: Well, Sahar Issa in Baghdad, we're cheering you on. Thanks so much, as always, for speaking with us today.

Issa: You are most welcome.

Werman: Baghdad resident and former Mcclatchy journalist Sahar Issa.

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