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    Middle East
     Mar 5, 2010
Iraqi election fever hits Damascus
By Stephen Starr

DAMASCUS - A strange type of election fever is grabbing Damascus this week with some of Iraq's top political figures making the journey west to canvas the some one million Iraqi refugees in Syria.

Iraqis go to the polls on Sunday to vote in a new parliament and across the city, particularly in neighborhoods such as Saida Zeinab and Jaramanah with high Iraqi populations, posters of electoral candidates dot street sides and add to a carnival atmosphere of a kind rarely seen in Syria.

On Tuesday night, thousands of Iraqis crammed into a sports hall in east Damascus to hear Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, the darling of the refugee community, speak. Bussed from across the

  

country, people fought to get inside the complex, keen to be a part of the election process. Stewards provided bottled water and campaign posters to refugees, young and old, in traditional and in modern dress alike.

The theme presented by Hashemi and other speakers at the event was that even though voters were not in their home country, Iraq was theirs. Amid a wave of nationalist outpouring and Iraqi music, supporters cheered Hashemi, who encouraged people to cast their vote this weekend.

Out of country voting
Syria has, by far, the largest Iraqi refugee population, and candidates see rich pickings both there and in Jordan.

"We are rushed off our feet. The demand for permits and press passes has been huge," said Maha, an Iraqi press interpreter for the International High Election Commission in Damascus. The commission organizes permits for dozens of election observers and press attaches who are to monitor the 23 polling stations across Syria this weekend, with the majority of the centers in working class Damascus suburbs.

"We have over 220,000 registrations, more than enough for everyone here," said another commission employee. However, many, including the Syrian government, say the actual number of Iraqi refugees in Syria stands at over one million. That means hundreds of thousands may not be able to vote.

Iraqi nationals can vote on March 5, 6 and 7, while voting in Iraq itself takes place on Sunday. Iraq's security and military personnel go to the polls on Thursday before taking up positions to keep the country secure during the voting process.

A public relations representative for Iyad Allawi, the former prime minister of Iraq, said, "Both the displaced Iraqis and our relationship with Damascus is very important and that's why we're here."

Hashemi and Allawi are leading figures in the Iraqi National Bloc (al-Iraqiya), a collection of cross-spectrum parties running against the ruling State of Law coalition led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Formed to embrace a secular agenda, Iraqiya is deep in conflict with Maliki, with one of its representatives having been refused participation by the government for links to the banned Ba'ath party.

Clearly, Hashemi and Allawi have singled out the refugee vote as worthy of significant attention, with Hashemi touring Jordan before spending four days in Syria this week, and Allawi due in Damascus today.

Hashemi, one of Iraq's two vice presidents, has been in the Syrian capital since Monday, and is on a two-fold mission. The most obvious one is to garner votes for Sunday's election by appearing in front of the masses of refugees, He also is seeking to mend ties with Syria following a string of accusations last year straight from Maliki himself. (At the Hashemi election gathering, one official working for Allawi said jokingly that Maliki would be killed if he came to Syria.)

What does Syria think?
Syria's outward interest in the election process has been muted, with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad saying his country wanted the "best of relations with Iraq". On the ground at the Hashemi rally on Tuesday night, the security and organization of thousands of supporters was carried out by Iraqi personnel, giving the impression that Iraqis were being allowed a considerable degree of freedom.

From a political standpoint, the visits of Hashemi and Allawi to Syria are not surprising. Hashemi, Iraq's top Sunni politician and the highest-level government representative to visit Syria since last August's huge bombing in Baghdad, told Syria's president that Iraq was committed to "developing bilateral relations". He also thanked Syria for its "historic stand" in taking in refugees even as political relations between Baghdad and Damascus turned cold.

The Iraqiya bloc remains the biggest threat to Maliki staying in power, and it was Maliki who stated that Damascus was harboring leading members of the Iraqi Ba'ath party. He believes they were responsible for the series of devastating bombings in Baghdad last year.

Syria may oppose Maliki for his links to Washington, but given the turnaround in relations between Syria and the United States, most recently manifest in the arrival of US Ambassador Robert Ford in Damascus, but this argument only goes so far.

A more plausible reason dates back to last August, when both governments were on the verge of consolidating their new-found ties during a meeting in Damascus. Maliki asked for the names of key Iraqi Ba'ath leaders hiding out in Syria but Assad refused. The next day, more than 100 people were killed in a series of bombings in Baghdad. The Syrian government, "by protecting" Iraqi Ba'athists, was held responsible by the Iraqi prime minister. Diplomatic ties were then cut off before Maliki called for an international tribunal to be established to find out who was responsible, with one finger still pointed at Damascus.

Tension has since eased, and Maliki said last Sunday that "as the atmosphere improves, there is less need to talk about international courts. There are more shared interests to bring the two countries closer than there are reasons for souring the relationship."

Maliki's turnaround may, however, have more to do with his rival Allawi's courting of key regional countries such as Saudi Arabia and now Syria, than any real will on his own part.

Given the fallout in August and Allawi's zest for making regional friends, Syria may prefer to see someone in power who will continue the process of realignment (and the future shipping of oil to Syrian ports) that began before the "Black Wednesday" bombings last August.

According to a state-run poll in Iraq last month, a lower turnout than the 2005 election is expected this Sunday even with the expected participation of the Sunni community that boycotted the last elections four years ago. For the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees in Syria, having famous politicians visit them may remind them of home and be encouraging, but as the bombings in the lead-up to voting day increase in number and ferocity, the majority are for now content with being safe.

Stephen Starr is a Damascus-based Irish freelance journalist.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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