On the day of the election, 30 January, the streets of Baghdad were clear of traffic. Families, mainly Shias, drifted down the main road in the Jadriyah district to the polling stations near the al-Hamra Hotel, where I live. The thump-thump of mortars in the distance did not affect the festive mood. The odd bicycle rattled past. For the first time in more than a year there was no danger of suicide car bombs. A blue and white police vehicle hooted at a small child kicking a ball. Children often play in the alleyway behind the hotel – their favourite game, played with plastic Kalashnikovs, is Americans v. the resistance – but it had been a long time since I had seen any of them on the main road.
By midday the Western television correspondents who had poured into Baghdad the previous week were exclaiming enthusiastically at the massive turnout of voters in Shia and Kurdish districts. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. It was, after all, the Shia leaders who had demanded an election after the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. They wanted the polls to show that Shias, who make up 60 per cent of the Iraqi population, have the right to hold political power.
Until just over a year ago the US had vetoed an election, in the belief that, with the help of a few tame Iraqi exiles, it could rule Iraq itself. Excuses were made. US officials said there first had to be a census to identify potential voters. The attraction of the census for Washington was the length of time it would take. Instead of an election, the US would nominate caucuses of local elites to draw up a constitution. Only when guerrilla attacks escalated in Sunni districts did the US realise that it could not afford to alienate the Shia as well as the Sunni. Suddenly the holding of an election became the centrepiece of American policy.
Iraqis are desperate for peace. It had been a long time since I last walked down Jadriyah Street. It’s a dangerous road: gunmen or kidnappers can watch potential victims coming and going from the hotel. To be as inconspicuous as possible I travel in an elderly car, caked with dust, more likely to belong to an Iraqi than a Westerner. We peer nervously out of the rear window to see if we’re being followed. If anything looks suspicious the driver will turn off the main road into smaller streets, until he is sure nobody is behind us.
Jadriyah, a middle-class neighbourhood built on a large loop in the Tigris, is one of the safer parts of Baghdad. When it is warm enough to sit outside in the evenings, families eat kebabs and drink tea in makeshift restaurants beside the main road. But things are changing. Last month a suicide bomber blew himself up beside a large half-finished office building that served as a guard post for the Australian soldiers who protect their embassy. A nearby building was turned into a grey concrete sandwich by the blast, as one floor collapsed on top of another. ‘He must have been one of the stupidest bombers in the world,’ said Nabil, a businessman who was sitting on a chair in the street watching voters go by. ‘He killed two people, both Iraqis. One of them was a mentally ill man everybody liked who’d never recovered from his son being killed in the Iran-Iraq war.’
A few hundred yards further down the road was a battered white kiosk where a middle-aged man was selling cigarettes. On the inside wall of the kiosk was a picture of him and his 14-year-old son. The boy was called Ali Abbas. He used to sell me cigarettes until I gave up smoking in December 2003. When another suicide bomber blew himself up in Jadriyah Street – his target was never clear – I had forgotten that the explosion was close to Ali’s kiosk; I didn’t know that it had killed him.