February 12, 2010 / 11:28 AM / 10 years ago

Bad state services dampen Iraqi appetite to vote

* Iraq’s parliamentary election campaigning kicks off

* Basic state services for many Iraqis severely lacking



By Aseel Kami

BAGHDAD, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Seven years after the U.S. invasion ushered in democracy, Iraqis living with only a few hours of power a day amid mounds of rubbish and pools of sewage are wondering whether to bother voting in a March election.

Election campaigning started on Friday with party workers putting up election advertisements across Baghdad, and like last year’s provincial election, fierce competition is likely to turn cities once more into forests of banners and posters.

Sat on an oilfield but ravaged by years of bombs and militia battles, Baghdad’s Sadr City slum is for many a symbol of the political incompetence and corruption which have sapped voter enthusiasm and led to mismanagement of Iraq’s vast oil wealth.

"I hear people say that Sadr City is rich, but I do not see the wealth. Why do my children not look rich? Why do the streets look like this?" said Raziqa Fokus, a widow and mother of five.

"I will not take part in the election because I did not see anything tangible from the government," she said, while heading out to throw a sack of garbage into the street. Another resident complained that rubbish usually remains uncollected for months.

Iraqi and U.S. officials hope the March 7 parliamentary election will solidify the country’s young democracy and draw former insurgents and militias into the political process just as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw.

The sectarian warfare unleashed by the 2003 U.S. invasion has receded.

But tensions between once dominant Sunnis and majority Shi’ites remain high, stoked by the Shi’ite-led government’s rhetoric against Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party and moves to ban candidates accused of Baathist ties.

In Sadr City, one of several Iraqi slums full of unemployed young men ripe for recruitment by insurgent, militia or criminal groups, ragged boys played in a stagnant pool of water. The smell of raw sewage and garbage wafts through the air.

An ugly web of wires criss-crosses the slum, an informal electricity grid hooked up to diesel generators to compensate for Iraq’s patchy national network that still provides far less than 24 hours of electricity per day.

"I’m just an employee. Corruption, a lack of coordination and haphazard decisions at the electricity ministry are to blame," said an electrical engineer, declining to be named.

Iraq is one of the world’s most corrupt countries according to watchdog Transparency International.



VOTING ON SECT NOT SERVICES

Jinan Abdul-Jabbar, a lawmaker and member of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, disputed accusations of poor government performance. Security, on which Maliki is expected to base his campaign, has improved dramatically.

"There were priorities and people understand that — security first then the services," said Jabbar.

Iraq’s infrastructure has crumbled after decades of war and sanctions, making rebuilding in a few years a tall order.

"I believe that despite the challenges that faced the government, it managed to achieve a lot," said Jabbar.

In recent months a few garbage trucks have appeared in Sadr City, home to about 3 million people, a policeman said. But he added that residents would "not be fooled" by a service he did not expect to last much beyond the polls.

Many Iraqis may yet end up voting according to religious, political and tribal affiliation, and not the competence of candidates, said Baghdad University analyst Saad al-Hadithi.

Iraq’s Shi’ites were urged on by religious leaders in the 2005 national elections to vote for Shi’ite Islamist parties.

"I believe a lack of services has no big effect in Iraq ... It’s affiliations to this or that side. There are political pressures that control the Iraqi voter," Hadithi said. (Editing by Mohammed Abbas and Samia Nakhoul)



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