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Iraqis Hold Political Debate in Baqubah

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

BAQUBAH, Iraq, Jan. 18, 2005 – It had none of the packaging that Americans have grown accustomed to in a presidential debate, but a debate here today for the upcoming election was fledgling democracy in action -- Iraqi style.

Diyala province Gov. Abdullah Rashid, leader of the Elite slate of candidates, met a representative of the Iraqi Communist/Marxist Party in a provincewide televised debate. It looked like something Americans would see on public access television.

The debate was held in a small studio about eight miles outside Baqubah, a town in the province about 30 miles north of Baghdad. The Iraqi army and troops from the U.S. 1st Infantry Division guarded the compound.

"It isn't so much what they are saying, it's the fact that it is happening at all," said a U.S. Embassy official who accompanied a group of reporters to Baqubah. There were elections under Saddam Hussein, but of course, there was only one slate of candidates.

The fact that the governor debated an opposing politician is new here. Opposing viewpoints are new. The idea that Iraqis have a choice is new.

And the idea that citizens have responsibility is new. At an earlier Peace Day ceremony here today to promote a nonviolent election, the governor who once lived in Manchester, England ripped into Iraqis who do not help the army or the police. "There were two men killed in broad daylight, in front of many witnesses," he said. "Why has no one come forward?"

The issues in the debate came down to security and jobs. Diyala province is home to between 1.2 million and 1.8 million people. Officials estimate that 55 percent of the people are Sunni Muslims and 45 percent are Shiia. Insurgents have made significant attacks in Baqubah, and earlier this month, U.S. commanders said Diyala province is one of the four Iraqi provinces not ready to hold the Jan. 30 election.

Both candidates said it has been tough, given the security problems, to campaign in Diyala. They said they have passed out fliers and pasted posters on walls. They have placed ads on television and on radio. But the kind of person- to-person campaigning that is the stock in trade of the West is out of the question. Large gatherings of people are simply targets for insurgents. Embassy officials said there is some person-to-person campaigning, but it is done mostly in private homes with small groups of people.

Improvised explosive devices and vehicle-borne IEDs remain significant threats in Diyala, said officials. In fact, while the debate was going on, two Iraqi police were killed and eight were wounded by an IED attack in Baqubah, Iraqi officials said.

Jobs are another priority for anyone taking office in Baqubah. Officials said between 23 percent and 50 percent of the young male population is not working. This makes this group prime fodder for insurgent groups who pay men to launch attacks, they said.

The debate touched on these issues and other purely local needs. Eventually, Iraqis may become more accustomed to these types of debates, but for now it was historic groundbreaking television in the heart of the oldest civilization on Earth.

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