Iraq: From Mecca to the ballot box

Kurdish pilgrims are coming back from Mecca on the first direct flights to Iraq's Kurdish administrative capital to cast their ballots…

After handing in their special travel documents on their return to Arbil in North Iraq, Kurdish pilgrims were given election pamphlets and posters by an election volunteer.
Mullah Kamal Abdul Ahmed Rahim, a blind and aged pilgrim, said he would vote on Sunday and would support the political party that helped him get to Mecca, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which organised the logistics of the trip and took charge of most of the costs.

"We will vote for the KDP not just for what they¹ve done for the pilgrimage but for everything else," said the mullah. "I myself am a Turkomen but I would vote for the Kurdish list because we belong to Kurdistan. We want one entity."

The pilgrims' arrival, during the week, coincided with a renewed campaign push from political parties seen throughout the streets of Arbil.

Traffic was busier than usual in preparation for the restricted movement during Election Day. Cars display election posters, and Kurdish and political party flags.

People drove in convoys honking their horns, while drum and flute musicians played from the back of pickup trucks.

Tents were dispersed throughout the city blasting patriotic songs through loudspeakers. There was also door-to-door campaigning where people were given clear instructions on who to elect.

The pamphlets handed out to the pilgrims at the airport gave them a clear indication of how to cast their ballot in the three-tiered election.

Most Kurds will vote for the Kurdish list for the interim Iraqi national assembly. The more votes from the Kurds, the greater the representation in the Iraqi assembly. Shwan Mufti, the head of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq for the Kurdish region, said he expects 90 per cent of the eligible population to vote.

The election material handed out at the airport indicated the preferred candidates of the KDP with their names and pictures.

The pilgrim¹s arrival was a well-organised and orchestrated event. The pilot waved out of the cockpit window of the Iraqi Airways plane as it came to a full stop in front of the new Hawler International Airport. Local television crews waited for the pilgrims at the bottom of the stairs from the plane.

Carrying bags full of souvenirs of prayer rugs and copies of the Koran and waving Kurdish flags, the pilgrims were led towards a bus that would carry them to the centre of Arbil where friends and family awaited them. Security precautions prevented large crowds from accessing the airport.

Hazi Hisheya¹s first words when she came off the plane were: "We Kurds are very grateful to Barzani to provide us with sleeping accommodations, food and taking good care of us," referring to Nechirvan Barzani, KDP¹s prime minister.

She said she would vote for the KDP or whoever they endorse.

"Thank God it was very easy and the regional government of Kurdistan helped us," said the mullah who first went to Mecca in 1977.

He made the trip along with nearly 4,000 mainly Kurdish Muslims, half the number of Kurds that travelled overland each year during Saddam Hussein's rule.

At the time, getting permission to go was difficult and many Kurds feared the arduous overland journey through Iran, which cost double, said Adnan Alnakshbandi, Kurdish minister of religious affairs.

The trip from Arbil this year cost about US$600 all-inclusive, with much of the food, accommodation and transport costs paid for by the Kurdish regional government.

Most of the 27,000 Iraqi pilgrims made the trip to Mecca by land though thousands also flew from Baghdad and Basra airports.