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Coffee shop voters want Iraq security

By Arwa Damon, CNN
  • Voters say they want security but fear they will get more violence
  • TV ads show images of beheadings, torture from the Hussein era
  • Parties are aligned to a specific bloc or coalition

Baghdad, Iraq (CNN) -- At one of Baghdad's oldest traditional coffee shops on the banks of the Tigris River, the sound of dice rolling, domino pieces clanking and the blaring TV drown out conversation.

Groups of men -- young and old -- take deep drags off their cigarettes and arguile, the traditional Arabic water pipe, at Beyruti.

"The thing that we are the most obsessed with is to figure out how to fully establish security in this country, in a just and fair manner," said Sami Mahmoud, a comic-turned-politician as he shook hands and posed with fans for photos.

"For us artists, we are close to the Iraqi street and to the vibe of the people," Mahmoud said. "So we know better than others the burdens and pain that Iraqis carry. And we feel that parliament was disconnected from the people over the last four years."

The vast majority of Iraq's leadership travels with armed guards, fortifying themselves in Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone.

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The conduct and outcome of the election will be the most decisive moment for Iraq's future since 2003.
--Ad Melkert, head of U.N. mission to Iraq

Salam, 23, who earns his living making tea at Beyruti, said he is going to vote for someone who he feels can relate to the hardships that Iraqis have had to endure.

"We want stability ... security," said a young man who didn't want to be named. "Even now, there are still kidnappings and bombings."

Although there is much talk of reduced violence -- and it is indisputable that attacks have decreased -- fear and anxiety are still how the majority of Iraqis define their lives.

What they are looking for the next government to provide is what they had hoped this current one would accomplish.

"We want basic services and jobs for our husbands and children," Umm Rasha told CNN at a campaign rally in central Baghdad.

"And someone to deal with the displaced people, the retirees, and the widows," her sister Umm Hassan chimes in.

We met them as they were dancing to an old Iraqi tune blaring from speakers at a rally for the Iraqiya list, headed by Ayad Allawi, the country's former prime minister.

The political bloc has a secular line up and is campaigning for an end to outside influence, especially from Iran. They also want to revamp Iraq's political process and bring an end to what they call sectarian governance.

"I view of course the political process as being non-inclusive, far from political reconciliation and manifested and infested in sectarianism," Allawi said.

"We are advocating two major themes. One is to get the political process rectified and be more inclusive and balanced, and out of the sectarian rhythm that has been prevailing for the last years after liberation. The second is really to build the state, build the institutions based on professionalism, integrity and loyalty to the country rather than loyalty to the sect."

Critics have lashed out at Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, with some going so far as to call him a dictator, accusing him of trying to consolidate power and abusing his authority over the Iraqi security forces.

In an exclusive interview with CNN, Maliki denied these allegations.

"It doesn't bother me, because I know I am not like that. But they are not distinguishing between a strong man who believes in the constitution and is committed to the constitution and handles issues based on the authorities granted by the constitution, and not being weak. If I was weak, the country would be lost."

For his part, Maliki is running on a platform of national unity, portraying himself as the man who brought stability to Iraq. Watch CNN's Arwa Damon answer your questions on the election Video

"Come out and vote to finish what we have already accomplished," Maliki said to thousands of people at one of his rallies in Baghdad.

But some polls indicate that his State of Law coalition that last year won 10 of the 14 provincial elections it ran in is now losing popularity. Many Iraqis say the party leaders have failed to perform since they have been in power.

Maliki denies that his party is faltering in the polls. He said he only has the best interests of Iraq in mind.

"Actually the premiership is not the end goal for us" he said. "What we care about is a the formation of a nonsectarian government and one that is not one with distribution based on sect, and is committed to national and constitutional principles and is able to run the country properly."

Another one of the main competitors in these elections is the INA, the Iraqi National Alliance, dominated by the country's most powerful religious Shia parties, with close ties to Iran.

They have seen their following diminish as Iraqis have begun to move away from religious sectarian politics. Iraqis overwhelmingly voted them into power in 2005, but have since felt betrayed because the main Shia parties in government failed to deliver on their promises.

The INA has been trying to revamp its image into one that is less fundamentalist, trying to portray itself as a nationalist party.

In what came as a surprise tactic, both the INA and the State of Law blocs are running on an anti-Baath platform -- the party of Saddam Hussein.

The parties heading both blocs have been running TV ads showing a macabre montage of atrocities committed under Hussein. They have bombarded the airwaves with gruesome images of beheadings, tongues being pulled out and handcuffed people being tossed from buildings, in an effort to stir fear and paranoia about the Baath party coming back.

In a move that caused some experts to raise concerns about the legitimacy of these elections even before the ballots were cast, the Justice and Accountability Commission, tasked with purging Baathists from political life, barred hundreds of candidates from running in these elections.

The committee is headed by Amhed Chalabi, who also is one of the INA's top candidates in the elections.

"Somebody has to do the job. We are not violating any Iraqi law by doing the job," he said, while defending the ban.

"The Baath is a secret society steeped in conspiracy. And they will use any means possible to gain power," Chalabi added.

The majority of candidates banned are from secular lists, with senior Western officials saying they believe Iran's hand is firmly behind this move.

Saleh al-Mutlaq, a leading Sunni politician running on the Iraqiya list who was among the most senior individuals banned from participating, said he believes that he and other politicians are being unjustly targeted because they are viewed as a threat to the Shia parties currently in power and allied with Iran.

"They have not done anything good to the people, so what can they tell them now to re-elect them again?" Mutlaq said. "So they have to unify them against a specific enemy."

This vicious smear campaign coupled with anxiety over more violence had cast a somber atmosphere over Baghdad in the lead up to this critical vote.

Groups outside the political process have promised more violence if the government that emerges is -- in their view -- as sectarian as the current one.

Also looming over the process is the vow by the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group headed by al Qaeda, to use military means to disrupt elections.

Initial polls indicate that this race will be much closer than initially expected. None of the blocs will win enough votes to control parliament on their own. Alliances will be formed, and opponents with become allies.

This election will determine if Iraq moves on a so-called democratic and secular path, or if it takes a much darker and sinister route.

"The conduct and outcome of the election will be the most decisive moment for Iraq's future since 2003," Ad Melkert, head of the U.N. mission to Iraq, said in a recent press conference.

A young man playing cards at the cafe told CNN: "People are worried about this, about even more problems after the elections."