The trial of Saddam Hussein coming, as it did, in the wake of the Iraqi constitutional referendum, provoked some strong emotions on the streets of Baghdad. Saddam was a tyrant but under the protracted rule of the despised dictator, the majority of Iraqis knew security and public safety.
Speaking to the BBC on the eve of the elections Yasmin summed it up eloquently: “A tough old fashioned president is what we need in Iraq now. Not Saddam,” she was at pains to make clear, “but a strong leader who will take care of us. We have no security here now and the crime rate is very high. Many Iraqis, particularly women and children, fear to walk on the streets, even in daylight, because they fear being kidnapped and held for ransom. It seems like everybody is just doing whatever they want.”
Yasmin is not alone, “Iraq needs a strong leader,” commented 47-year-old Hassan. “These western ideas of liberalisation in Iraq are all very well but we are not yet prepared for such change, which must evolve, slowly, in order to be successful. The freedom offered by the West has become a gift of anarchy.”
It is more than disconcerting to hear well educated Iraqis speak in this way. Few admit to wanting a return to the iron rule of Saddam Hussein but high security and a low crime rate – typical of life under dictatorship, where traditionally punishment is harsh and crime is low – are clearly something most urban Iraqis hanker after and feel only a “strong” leader can deliver.
After recounts and wrangling it became clear that the new constitution had been approved by the majority, reducing the authority of central government and giving strong powers to the Kurdish and Shi’a regions.
Sunnis who sought to veto the constitution would have needed to secure two-thirds of the votes in three provinces which, in the event, they did not. The overall turnout was 63% -64%, according to the electoral commission chief, up from 58% in the January election, boycotted by many thousands of Sunnis.
So what happens now? Certainly not an end to violence, murder and mayhem on the streets which, following a welcome, if somewhat unexpected, lull around the voting, resumed almost immediately the polling stations had closed.
It is certain that the squabbling and bloodletting will continue for some time to come.
The Shi’a and Kurds appear, by and large, happy with the result but the fragmented Sunnis are mightily disgruntled and alleging the ballot was rigged; they will need to pull themselves together if they are to present any sort of united front as the country gears up for presidential elections in December.
Admittedly there is a long, long way to go and countless hurdles to be overcome but at least, once again, Iraqis have shown a willingness to participate in their political process.
The referendum reminded many observers of Iraq’s last referendum three years ago, when Saddam Hussein awarded himself a new seven-year presidential term in a poll in which he was the only candidate. The next day, Baath Party officials announced Saddam had won 100% of the 11.4m votes.
“We don’t want a return to that, not after all we have been through,” observed one polling official, adding: “The rest of the world are making a big thing about what will happen to Saddam Hussein but we just want to get it over with. It is time for Iraqis to move on and whatever our divides and differences, that much at least we can agree on.”