We're heading towards the end of February and the election campaigns are heating up as we near March, 7, when millions of Iraqis from a colorful mosaic of different ethnicities, sects and religions will head to the ballot boxes to cast their votes for the country's national Parliamentary elections.
Young and old, women and men, Kurds and Arabs, Muslims, Secularists and Christians are counting the days, minutes and seconds to be part of the most important elections in the Middle East. March, 7, is not only a crucial day for the Iraqis but also for the Middle East and the wider world, as it defines the future of a war-torn country and a troubled region in dire need of peace and freedom.
As I tour Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan Region (the only region in Iraq spared of violence since the American invasion of 2003), I meet many politicians and ordinary people for my interviews; but to me the ordinary people are the most crucial, as it is THEY who make a real change in this country's future.
During the elections, people in Iraq have very simple hopes and demands, when compared to other Western nations where I grew up and spend most of my life before returning here several months ago.
The people of Iraq want 24-hours of electricity (much less than what it is offered today), employment (Iraq has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world), transparency (Iraq is the second most corrupt nation in the world after Somalia), a fare sharing of the country's oil and gas wealth and better education and medical services. But most importantly, average Iraqi citizens want their country to stay secular, away from religious influences …and they demand security, so that their children can grow up in a safe and peaceful environment.
What really caught my attention a few days ago was when a taxi driver in the city was praising the former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. It is not a rare case for some people in Iraq to praise the dictator, but certainly it is shocking when the person in question is a Kurd from Halabja, the same town that was attacked by Saddam's army in 1988 killing more than 5,000 innocent civilians and wounding many more.
"During Saddam (pre-2003), Iraq had 24-hours of electricity, many people were employed…in fact millions of foreigners were also working in our country. Iraq had the best infrastructure, educational sector and medical services in the Middle East before the 1991 international sanctions," Ali told me in the early morning as he drove me to my work.
"Iraq, back then, was safe… we didn't have terrorist attacks nor did we have much corruption. It's true, we did have a brutal dictator, but now we have thousands of them," continued the 49-years-old taxi driver. "Look at me now, I am a taxi driver. I used to be a civil engineer in the 1980s," he said.
When I told him that Saddam was a brutal dictator and responsible for the killings of thousands of Kurds and other innocent Iraqis, including the people of his town, he said "It's true…I lost most of my family in the Halabja massacre."
Without further continuing my dialogue with Ali, I like to shed some light on the following.
It is definitely true that during Saddam's regime Iraqis enjoyed a great amount of services and luxuries denied of today. But we shouldn’t forget the genocides, the brutality and the hardships that we and/or our parents and other family members had to go through then. The damages to our country and our society are inherited from Saddam's legacy, a hefty price we all are paying today. If it wasn't for Saddam, why on earth would I and millions of other Iraqis have left our beautiful and rich country seeking refuge in Europe or elsewhere?
We shouldn't have dangerous thoughts of going back to Saddam's period; instead, we should build a future with better services than his, plus freedom and equality.
The democratization process is our responsibility now, through voting for our new government. But it is also the task of our new government to implement what they promise. The political parties and their candidates should make every Iraqi citizen happy, an emotion we have lost for ages.
Dear politicians and other senior officials: Iraqis, including me, want 24-hours of electricity, security, better education, better medical services.
Iraqis, including me, want to easily travel abroad on holidays, we want better salaries, we want a better infrastructure and we want more freedom and democracy.
As an Iraqi national and a voter, I demand prosperity (our national budget has never been as high as for the last few years), equality, and an end to discrimination and racism…and most importantly, peace!
Let's not praise Saddam, let's not be proud of his era. Let us start a new future and be proud of our new choices. Let us be proud of our upcoming government, if it hopefully succeeds.
If most of the people's demands are accomplished soon by our new federal government, then I can assure you, dear politicians, that the name 'Saddam' will be forgotten forever, even by Ali.