Baghdad is splashed with color. Campaign posters blend together on the cement landscape as I creep through the stifling afternoon traffic. Paintings of palm trees or cascading waterfalls reminiscent of the Swiss Alps give a bright façade to the 12-foot blast walls that still separate many neighborhoods. Billboards abound: "Freedom is a responsibility. Use it wisely," reads one over a crowd of Iraqis stretching to the horizon. "Towards a peaceful spring," reads another, over an image of a little white girl blowing a dandelion under a blue sky.
We park our car in Karada, near a blue and yellow domed Husseiniya—a Shia mosque— surrounded by blast walls. The slabs were erected after a car bomb blew up outside it over a year ago. When we get out of the car, a kid shoves a ticket in my fixer's hand. He laughs. "You can't park anywhere without a kid trying to get money from you in Baghdad."
Here, election candidates compete with pictures of Hussein for wall space. One poster shows a suited man, Mathaal Alusi, in front of an image of a child drinking water out of a puddle. "His platform is fighting poverty and corruption, restoring basic services, and providing electricity," my fixer says to me. "It's the same platform as everyone else, but no politicians actually do it."
The mostly Shia neighborhood used to be the site of regular car bombs, but today tarps covered in neatly arranged shoes and sandals sprawl across the sidewalk. An old man sells figs and nuts from a wooden cart, smiling when I ask to take his picture. Shops sell brass souvenirs and fake flowers. A table displays pirated copies of American films like "The Girl Next Door" and Leonardo DeCaprio's "Body of Lies." Iraqi police are on nearly every corner.
We stop for tea. As I sip the strong and sweet drink, I ask the tea seller for his thoughts on the elections. "There are too many parties," he says, handing out tea to another customer. He pours the hot liquid onto a little plate to let it cool before sucking it down and moving on. "In America there are only two parties, why do we have so many? It's backwards." Today, 14,431 candidates from more than 400 parties are competing for over 444 seats in 14 of Iraq's eighteen provinces.
He complained about corruption in parties' campaigning, claiming that he recently witnessed one candidate giving out $100 bills, a blanket, and a heater to anyone who would put their hand on the Quran and swear to vote for them. The rumor is widespread in Baghdad.
If he votes for anyone, he says, he'll vote for Al Maliki, who he accredits for providing security. "There used to be explosions everywhere around here. There was one there and there and there," he pointed. He refuses to let us pay for our tea, shoving my fixer's hand back into his pocket.
As we turn down a side street, a group of twenty-somethings, leaning idly against their bicycles, cower. "Oooooooh. Ooooooh," they boo softly. I look back and see a convoy of American Strykers and Humvees rolling slowly by. "Whenever we see them, we're afraid," one tells me. "They shoot easily. All it takes is someone to run out in front of them." I ask about the elections and the youngest of the group marks an "x" on his hand with his fingers. Over the last few days, many people have told me they will draw an "x" on their ballet to prevent anyone from forging it. "Why should we vote?" he says. "What are we going to get out of it? I might do it. I'll see what my dad says."
At a checkpoint of the National Police, I ask the burly commander, Majid Hassim, for his thoughts. "Out of (the 2,400 candidates in Baghdad), not one deserves to be elected. In five years, this government hasn't done a thing for us. Why do we still have no electricity (Baghdad has about 7-8 hours of electricity per day)? Why isn't our water clean? Where is all of the money going?"
Shane Bauer is a freelance journalist and photographer based in the Middle East, where he has spent much of the past six years. He is a correspondent for New America Media and his writing and photography has been published in the US, UK, Middle East, and Canada.