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Left: The day after the election in Afghanistan last October, workers passed along boxes of ballots to be counted by hand. Right: An Iraqi worker walked on boxes at Baghdad International Airport containing ballots for the general election being held today.
Left: The day after the election in Afghanistan last October, workers passed along boxes of ballots to be counted by hand. Right: An Iraqi worker walked on boxes at Baghdad International Airport containing ballots for the general election being held today. (AP Photo / Maya Alleruzzu, Detroit Free Press Photo / David P. Gilkey)

The choice

Today's elections in Iraq may be far more chaotic than those held in Afghanistan last fall. They may also be more meaningful.

BAGHDAD, Iraq --In Kabul last October, I rode up to a shabby mosque that was serving as a polling station in Afghanistan's first-ever presidential elections. A line of men in turbans and shawls wound out the door, packed so close they almost leaned on each other in their eagerness to get in and cast their votes.

What should have been an inspiring sight opened a pit in my stomach. Despite the promised high security, there was no concrete barrier, no concertina wire, just a lone policeman lounging on the corner. "Don't park here," I told my driver. "Wait for me a block away. No, two blocks."

He looked at me like I was crazy. But then, for the past year I've been living in Iraq. Here, a cluster of people lined up for anything related to the new government -- entering a ministry, applying for a police job -- is an open invitation to a car bomb.

Today, Iraq is launching its own electoral experiment. And while I'm hoping the threat of violence will evaporate as it did in Afghanistan, where 70 percent of voters went to the polls without any major bloodshed, the week leading up to elections hasn't offered much solace. Insurgents have blown up polling stations in Baghdad, Samarra, and Basra, captured election workers, and posted an Internet video of a kidnapped candidate from the party of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi abjectly denouncing the US "occupiers" before a gunman fires three shots into his chest.

My first attempts to cover this election set the tone. I interviewed Salama Khafaji, a Shi'ite Muslim candidate, on my first day back in Iraq after a New Year break long enough to remind me that the rings of concrete and security guards around her Baghdad office were a sign that the situation in Iraq is, as the country's electoral commission recently put it, atypical. A doctor and Shi'ite Muslim politician, she told me that she's not only unable to meet voters in public, she can't even go to the park with her remaining children; her teenage son was killed last year in one of several attempts on her life.

Next, with a colleague, I headed to the mosque formerly known as Mother of All Battles, hoping to ask about something resembling normal politics: An influential group of Sunni Muslim clerics had met there with US diplomats who want them to call off their boycott of the elections. But as we rounded a corner outside the mosque, my colleague gasped and jumped. An Iraqi soldier, his AK-47 pressed to his cheek, was pointing the barrel straight at us. Troops were raiding the mosque, and any vehicle was a suspected car bomb. We pulled over, only to worry about sitting still too long in a pro-insurgency neighborhood. The soldier declared, "Terrorists have infiltrated this area." He was the last to know, we thought. But we fled.

A few days later, I went to sleep looking forward to an honest-to-god campaign event. In the morning, an obscure candidate was going to release a flock of doves -- well, pigeons, actually -- to symbolize peace. But I was jolted from bed by the crack of a huge car bomb across the street. It blew out our windows, and I spent the day cleaning up and refining our emergency escape plans. I didn't miss anything, since four other bombs went off around the city and the candidate decided to reschedule the pigeons.

. . .

Arriving in Afghanistan last fall, I was immediately exhilarated by how easily I could travel. How comfortable it felt to drive 12 hours across the country on mountain roads, to talk with people in streets and cafes. How at one polling site, a policeman was even flying a kite.

Everyone told me the comparisons I couldn't stop making said more about Iraq than they did about Afghanistan. Afghans, US soldiers, and jaded diplomats all made the same joke: "You came from Iraq? So you're on vacation!" One senior diplomat cautioned me not to be blind to problems and policy failures in Afghanistan -- mushrooming opium harvests, lagging reconstruction, resurgent warlords. Comparing it to Iraq, he said, was like putting on rose-colored glasses.

Still, I found Afghanistan instructive for understanding what was missing in Iraq. First, there was international support for the mission: In Afghanistan, 20,000 US troops share their burden with 9,000 international peacekeepers, and Kabul's restaurants teem with the earnest foreign aid workers who were driven out of Iraq by violence long ago. Second, there were realistic expectations: Afghans, used to village life with little running water or electricity, don't expect the United States to create a spotless infrastructure, nor did the United States expect their country to morph instantly into a modern democratic state. Most importantly, there was a national consensus: From the Defense Ministry spokesman to a goatherd at a kebab shop near the Uzbekistan border, nearly every Afghan I interviewed said something like: "We have had 30 years of war. Afghans are tired of fighting."

While clans and ethnic groups still have reason to fight -- territory, revenge -- the gains they could hope for were just not worth it, Afghans explained. Some were even willing to engage in critical introspection about their own roles in the country's disastrous years of violence. Kamaluddin Kuchai, a gray-bearded former warlord who put down his guns to become a poppy farmer, said he was proud to have joined the "holy warriors" who drove out the Soviet occupation, but regretted taking up arms against other Afghan factions. "It was the wrong thing to do when I fought the Afghan government, when we fought each other," he said.

I can't think of a time when an Iraqi told me something like that. I've never heard any Iraqi seriously examine the extent of his or her own complicity in Saddam's rule. They're still too busy feeling wronged by the way the post-Saddam world has turned out -- Sunni Muslims angry over their lost influence, Shi'ites angry that more Sunni Ba'athists haven't been punished for their crimes, Kurds angry that their fight against Hussein hasn't been rewarded with control of the northern oil fields, and a growing swath of Iraqis incensed at the United States for disappointments from the anemic electrical grid to shootings of civilians at checkpoints. That means Iraqis, unlike the Afghans, are willing to keep fighting -- some physically, many more metaphorically.

But now, as elections approach, I see another contrast. In Afghanistan, the election lacked suspense. US-backed interim president Hamid Karzai was elected by a landslide to a weak post with little power over the country's regional warlords. The outcome was never in doubt, and no one's fortunes would be made or ruined by the results. Iraq's election, for better or worse, is much more exciting. Real power could be won and lost -- and already has been -- which is why the threat of violence is so much more serious.

Corporal Domenic Cimino, 24, a former art student and son of a Newbury Street restaurateur, pointed this out to me last fall as his US Army platoon rode through Gardez, southeastern Afghanistan, checking on the security of polling sites. He thought there was a simple reason why Afghan tribal leaders don't seem to have funded or tolerated the level of attacks on government security forces, US troops, and civilians that are routine in Iraq. "All the same warlords are in charge," he said. "No one here has lost anything."

. . .

That, in fact, is the most widespread criticism of the US intervention in Afghanistan: To enlist their help in hunting Al Qaeda, the United States let local warlords keep much of their military power, lucrative smuggling business, and, in some cases, almost feudal control over ordinary people. In Iraq, the United States has faced criticism for doing the opposite. US administrator Paul Bremer didn't want the long-feared Ba'ath Party military apparatus to keep its power. But destroying it created a pool of enemies with military training and access to weapons.

US planners hadn't counted on radical change in Iraq; they thought they could decapitate the regime and end up with a secular state -- like Saddam's, but with saner leaders. But when looters ransacked Baghdad, police and soldiers left their jobs, and the Shi'ite masses started to feel their power, an entire economic class -- Sunnis who benefited from almost a century of favored positions in the bureaucracy -- was toppled from its secure perch. One US diplomat says it's no exaggeration to call it revolution.

Now Iraqis are choosing a national assembly that will write a constitution dealing with such fundamental issues as Islam's role in the law and how Iraq's ethnic groups will share oil profits. How that turns out depends on what happens today: If the most prominent Shi'ite candidate list does well enough at the polls, the prominent Islamist politicians who lead it may be able to insist on one of their own as prime minister -- an outcome US officials never predicted at the outset. If not, they'll have to find a compromise candidate. If violence and boycotts keep turnout low in Sunni areas, with major casualties among the largely Shi'ite and Kurdish Iraqi security forces, Election Day could deepen sectarian and ethnic conflict. But if the day is a victory for the new Iraqi forces, and Sunnis join in drafting the constitution, whether from inside or outside the government, then there's hope for a safer multiethnic Iraq.

As surreal as the campaign has been, its issues are real and its stakes are high. When young men with guns handed out flyers in Sadr City on Wednesday saying God is behind the most prominent Shi'ite candidate list, they probably did so in the fervent belief that the day is at hand when the country will be shaped in the image of the clerics they revere. When Salama Khafaji, a devout, veiled Shi'ite, takes the seat she will likely win in the National Assembly, she will face a real choice between joining those who want a strictly Koran-based constitution or banding with women and other moderates who want the clerics respected but not in charge. When Sunni worshippers on the other side of Baghdad tell me they refuse to vote, they truly believe that participating would endorse either Shi'ite domination or a secular, pro-American state they can't live with.

And when Mohammed Jabber al-A'aridhi, 60, goes to vote today, he will be putting his life on the line to support a process -- however imperfect -- that is the best available (or realistic) hope for Iraq's peaceful evolution.

He's stockpiling food and water at his house, where his five sons and his brothers will spend the day to shelter from the violence they fear. But he's going to the polls anyway. "God willing, the faithful citizens will build a new country," he told me. "I think it's worth our sacrifices."

Anne Barnard, of the Globe's foreign staff, has covered Iraq full-time for the past year. Email abarnard@globe.com.

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