A test of democracy in Iraq

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: Now to the BBC's Jim Muir in Baghdad. Jim, these elections are seen as a key moment for Iraq. How much is this idea of a Shiite super region in the south of the country weighing on minds of voters as they prepare to go into voting booths this weekend, especially in Baghdad?

JIM MUIR: Well, certainly I think among the Shia in particular, it's one of the main issues that has been bantered around and it's one of the main dividing factors between the parties. Those who are advocating Shiite regionalism or those who are advocating a kind of central, a more Iraqi system.

WERMAN: How many Shia parties are there, and just how different are they from each other?

MUIR: Well, there are a variety, and it's really hard to draw a line and say, �this is a party and this is not.� Taking part in these elections, there's a huge number of so-called lists, certainly more than 400. It's more a question of trying to divide out who stands for what. And I think this is actually one of the main problems facing the voters at the moment. Quite a lot of people initially said they weren't going to vote because they were just so confused about the plethora of parties, the whole slew of candidates of which they know nothing. The main thing on their minds, really, is getting people who they regard as clean and efficient.

WERMAN: Well, as we just heard from Andrew North, it seems that some supporters of Muqtadr Al-Sadr, especially, are concerned that Iraq might head back toward dictatorship. Maybe you can help us understand where that concern comes from?

MUIR: I think it stems from concern that in some sense the fact that Muqtadr Al-Sadr's militia was crushed last year by government forces, and I think some of them feel a bit squashed by that. So it comes down to an issue of perceptions. Do you support a relatively strong state, an army of unified forces and so on, or do you want everything to be local and with local gangs running the show? I have to say, among many ordinary Iraqis, there is sort of hankering for a strong man. They do like order. They do like law and order. They had that under Saddam � they didn't have political freedoms, but they did have law and order. And I think that's something they miss a lot. So they do want to see -- many people, not everybody � they do want to see strong objective State power, and it's going to be very interesting to see what happens with Nuri Al-Maliki and his party in these elections. He's standing straightforward. He's backing a trend that is called �The state of law.� And he is stressing, �Absolutely. We must have law. We must have state.� Let's see how he does.

WERMAN: I think a lot of our listeners will remember those elections in 2005. It was a watershed moment, people holding up their purple-inked hands. With this election, what is at stake for Iraq? I mean, the kind of democratic spotlight is not so bright this time simply because it's happened already, but you know, what's at stake for Iraq, and for that matter, what's at stake for the US with this vote this weekend?

MUIR: Well, I think a lot is at stake. If it passes off generally peacefully without major disruption, I think people will see it as a very good sign that Iraq is stabilizing, that it's starting to stand on its own feet, and that it will be an encouraging sign for US forces to continue drawing down. For many Iraqis that have come out of some very, very, very dark times -- two years ago, as I say, we were talking about 100 bodies every day, or bombs, shootings, assassinations. People are coming out of that and they're seeing this election as a kind of symbol of the fact that you can live together; you can sort your differences out democratically. That's assuming it goes ahead as people do believe it will do. Even in the roughest Sunni areas, up in Mosul, for example, and Bacuba, these are still very troubled areas where insurgents have quite a lot of grip still, and there has been trouble in the run up to the election. But even there, lots of candidates are standing, competition is fierce, and the process is unrolling. And I think a lot of people are taking a lot of hope for that for the future. But of course, they do realize that this is just the beginning of a long process of getting the country back on its feet.

WERMAN: All right, Jim. We'll leave it there. The BBC's Jim Muir in Baghdad. Always good to speak with you. Thanks.

MUIR: You're welcome, Marco.