Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Insurgents dismiss Iraq polls, brace for battle

BAGHDAD (Reuters) Election posters promising a stable Iraq cut no ice with men like Abu Mohammed, who runs a women's clothing boutique in Baghdad's Adhamiya district by day but is an insurgent fighter by night.


As an insurgent, Abu Mohammed attacks U.S. military convoys with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 assault rifles, fights Iraqi troops and hunts down "informers".

"Expect black days. Elections won't change anything. This is a long-term struggle. We will fight for the next 20 years," said Abu Mohammed, who used that name as an insurgent.

Iraqi officials and their American allies are pinning their hopes on December 15 elections for the first post-war, full-term government to defuse a Sunni Arab insurgency that has killed thousands of security forces and civilians.

Even though many more Sunnis are expected to vote after largely boycotting January elections, the big question is whether hardcore fighters can be drawn into peaceful politics.

Abu Mohammed and his insurgent brother sitting beside him in his shop aim to dig in for a protracted battle.

They dismiss candidates like Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, a former U.S. ally, and pro-Iranian Shi'ite leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and say they are exiles who rode into Iraq on American tanks.

In Adhamiya, a northern Baghdad district that is a typical stronghold for Sunni insurgents, inspiration still comes from Saddam Hussein, not from promises of democracy and prosperity made after his fall in 2003.

They see signs of decline all around. An old officers' social club now has sandbags in front of it and what was once a feared intelligence headquarters is inhabited by the homeless.

Abu Mohammed says even election candidate and former prime minister Iyad Allawi, seen as a strongman who appeals to both Shi'ites and Sunnis amid sectarian fears of civil war, has little chance of winning over guerrillas in Adhamiya.

"We want Saddam back. If we can't have Saddam we want someone who stayed in Iraq and not exiles," said Abu Mohammed, a short, stocky man with glasses whose eyes fill with rage when he speaks of U.S. occupation and Iraqi politicians.

Both his favoured scenarios are highly unlikely. Saddam is fighting for his life in court and Iraq's political landscape, once controlled by Sunnis, is dominated by Shi'ites and Kurds.

Insurgent Abu Alaa, a former intelligence officer, says he wanted to join Iraq's new security forces but was discouraged by what he called Shi'ite discrimination and violence against Sunnis.

Unemployed, he spends most of his time fighting despite the slick election advertisements on television.

"These elections don't mean anything. There is no democracy in Iraq with our new leaders," he said.

Although Sunnis lost out by not voting in January elections, Abu Mohammed sees the elections as a U.S. plot to dominate Iraq.

His suspicions have been reinforced by the recent discovery of 173 malnourished Sunni prisoners found locked in a bunker by the Shi'ite-run Interior Ministry.

Workers in his shop listen closely as he criticises Iraq's new government while women stroll through looking at clothes.

Outside, insurgents who once served in Saddam's intelligence agencies keep a close eye on any strangers who enter Adhamiya, where he was last seen in public after the fall of Baghdad waving to crowds near the Abu Hanifa mosque.

The United States may be optimistic about democracy conquering violence but Abu Mohammed and others like him still prefer the bullet to the ballot box.

"How can we accept any new government when the Americans have arranged everything their way?," he asked.

"There are just too many differences between us. If an American man finds his wife in bed with another man it is normal. In Iraq if a man looks at my wife I will kill him."

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